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Lancaster Airport owners seek buyer Site has been at center of controversy in town

The owners of the Lancaster Airport say frustration over high taxes, strict regulations and determined opposition from their neighbors are driving them to seek a buyer.

The airfield has been a point of contention since its designation in the 1990s as a "reliever" airport for the Buffalo Niagara International Airport brought extra federal aid -- and growth.

A determined group of Lancaster residents has sought to stop further expansion as they complain about noise from low-flying planes using the facility.

"We are going to be soon engaged in selling the airport. Taxes and regulations have made the operation so marginal," airport President Tom Geles told The Buffalo News.

The airport has sought to build a longer runway in a bid to bring in larger aircraft, but objections from neighbors and, now, Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli, have thwarted this project.

Fudoli said he doubts whether the airport's owners are serious about selling off the property, but he hopes any buyer would run the airfield in a way that is more respectful of the residents of nearby subdivisions.

"I don't know what opportunity [a sale] brings," he said.

News of a possible sale comes as the town and the airport wrap up a year's worth of negotiations to settle the airport's assessment challenge.

The settlement was debated at length last week during a Lancaster School Board meeting, a session attended by critics of the airport's operations who doubt its value to the town.

"The contention it's an economic engine is false," said Carmen Hangauer, a Nichter Road resident who, with her husband, Dave, founded the Safe Aviation Coalition of Lancaster.

Partners Henry Geles and Don Griffiths, both now deceased, founded the airport in 1968, and five of their children now operate the facility.

The rural airport, off Walden Avenue between Pavement and Ransom roads, has six buildings on its property. It is home to about 75 planes at any one time and hosts Bob Miller Flight Training, a flight school.

The airfield's 3,200-foot runway serves smaller, slower propeller planes, and its owners make money by renting hangar space and selling aviation fuel.

Its designation in the mid-1990s as a reliever airport was meant to keep those planes from crowding the airspace at the airport in Cheektowaga.

This brought additional Federal Aviation Administration grant money -- $9.3 million over the years, according to the FAA -- but carried conditions.

The airport's owners have for years wanted to extend the runway to 5,500 feet to allow the airstrip to bring in light corporate jets.

"The airport needs to grow in order to survive economically," said Miller, the flight school owner.

> Neighbors complain

Miller and Geles said the airfield also needs to build a taxiway, because planes now have to taxi on the airport's runway.

Fudoli said he supports the construction of a taxiway, as a safety measure, but only if the airport's owners agree they won't seek to extend the runway.

The airport sits along the Walden Avenue industrial corridor, in a largely rural part of eastern Lancaster where several subdivisions have sprouted up in the flight path in recent years.

Neighboring homeowners complain of noise from low-flying planes piloted by "hobbyists," most of whom are from out of town, they contend.

And they complain that previous airport expansions were approved without public input.

Geles said these residents have the right to speak their minds at community meetings, but he believes they've used their influence to turn government officials and regulators against the airport.

"Their voices are certainly heard," Geles said.

Uncertainty over future expansion plans at the Lancaster Airport has driven Miller, the airport's biggest tenant, to move two of his flight school's four planes to the Genesee County Airport in the Town of Batavia.

Miller said he doesn't understand why homeowners who moved near a functioning airport object to its use as an airport, and he believes the trains running on nearby railroad tracks make more noise.

The Hangauers, however, say noise has increased since they bought their house 3 1/2 years ago after the flight school moved in and the flight path used by most planes changed.

The long-running fight over the airfield moved to the School Board meeting, where members debated whether to sign off on a proposed reduction in the airport's assessment.

The airport is made up of four parcels, totaling 141 acres.

The town had raised the airport's assessment in 2010, during a revaluation of property in Lancaster, from $1.6 million to $3.43 million, according to town records.

The challenge focused on the main parcel, which included a 16-acre piece of land the airport bought in 2005 from Ecology & Environment, said Jim Chisholm, a real property appraiser for the town.

The airport used $940,000 in FAA funding for the land, which is set aside as a runway protection zone, Geles said.

"This land, once we acquire it, is useless. It cannot be built on. It cannot be sold," he said.

The airport's owners sought a reduction in its overall assessment to $1 million, Geles said, a figure that better reflects the income generated by the facility.

Former Lancaster Assessor David Marrano and lawyers for the town worked out a compromise.

The airport would see its overall assessment fall to $2 million, and the facility would receive a refund from the town, school district and county on part of its property-tax bill for the past two years, town records show.

The Lancaster School Board must authorize the proposed settlement because it affects school taxes, and some board members raised questions.

Maura C. Seibold, a lawyer who represented the town in the assessment challenge, told board members last week that the decision to reach a settlement reflected several factors: the high cost of litigating the case, including producing an appraisal; the low financial return provided by a legal victory; and the possibility of a loss in court.

After a lengthy discussion, the School Board voted to authorize the settlement, even as resident Kevin Lemaster warned the airport would be back later to seek another reduction.

> 'It has not been fun'

The airport eventually would pay about $62,000 per year in property taxes at the assessment called for in the settlement, which still must be approved by Marrano's successor.

Even at the new assessed value, the airport's costs don't allow the owners to make much of a profit, Geles said.

"As of late, it has not been fun," he said.

Geles said he hasn't formally marketed the property to potential buyers, but if the owners receive a good offer, they will take it because running the airport is no longer enjoyable.

Conditions attached to some FAA grants, however, require the property to be used as an airport "in perpetuity," according to the FAA.

And the airport's owners only would be entitled to take away from the proceeds of the sale an amount equal to what they've invested in the facility, Geles and the FAA said.

For her part, Hangauer said a sale won't make the situation for residents any better and could make it worse.

"If he sells, that allows a new owner to apply for a new set of [FAA] funding," she said.

email: swatson@buffnews.com