The Federal Aviation Administration is suspending its $28.7-million funding for expansion of the Mammoth Lakes airport after a court ruling that halted the Eastern Sierra project until further environmental review is completed.
“It does not kill the funding. It basically is on hold while we discover what is going to happen,” FAA spokesman Paul Turk said.
The money is key to the resort town’s plans to expand the runway at its small mountain airport to bring in more skiers and vacationers on large commercial jets.
The project has encountered opposition from the state and environmentalists who filed lawsuits contending that the town and the FAA have not adequately considered the impact of importing hundreds of thousands more visitors annually to a sparsely populated, high-elevation region known for its spectacular scenery and remoteness.
Late last month a U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco concurred, ordering the town and the FAA to prepare an environmental impact statement outlining the effect of the expansion. In the meantime, the court blocked any work on the project.
In a May 9 letter to the California attorney general’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice said that in light of the ruling, the FAA was suspending the airport funding and seeking a return of any unspent grant money.
The aviation agency last year approved $29.7 million in airport improvement funds for the town and issued a grant for $20 million of that amount.
Turk said the town spent $2.78 million before the court ruling, a sum it would not have to return. The agency will reclaim about $16.8 million.
Turk said the FAA is prepared to give the town a grant to complete the environmental impact statement, adding that if the review is successful, Mammoth will not have to file a new funding application. Still, he stopped short of guaranteeing that the full funding would remain available.
Asked if there was any reason why the town would not recapture the money if it wins environmental approval, Turk replied: “In theory, no. But never say ‘never.’ It would depend on the circumstances at that time.”
Mammoth Lakes Town Manager Stephen Julian said he is optimistic that the airport project will move ahead.
“You just say, ‘We’re going to go back and do [the environmental review] over again and follow the process,” Julian said.
“My understanding and hope is that the money will remain available.”
The town wants to extend the runway, at an elevation of 7,128 feet, and enlarge terminal facilities to accommodate charter jet flights and attract out-of-state vacationers.
Although Mammoth has had limited commercial air service in the past, the majority of skiers drive up from Southern California, about 250 miles away.
Local officials complain that the potential growth impact has been greatly exaggerated by opponents.
“People seem to think it’s all growth and greed,” Julian said. “This is a very environmentally sensitive community.”
But in his April 28 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard Zimmerman concluded that the town and FAA had given short shrift to growth concerns.