The Camas County commissioners approved a new county ordinance Monday that will allow construction work on a private airport owned by actor Bruce Willis to continue.
During deliberation Monday afternoon, Commissioners Barb Cutler, Kenneth Backstrom and Ron Chapman voted to allow private airports as a primary use in AG-80, agriculture-zoned county lands, a move they said would bring nine existing private airstrips on that land into compliance.
Planning and Zoning Administrator Dwight Butlin said in an interview that Soldier Field Airport, a private airport being built by Willis, is on AG-80 zoned land.
Willis caused a stir among Camas Prairie residents in September as locals questioned his intentions in building an 8,500-foot dirt runway—1,000 feet longer than the paved runway at Friedman Memorial Airport—east of Fairfield.
The project was halted altogether Sept. 21 when Ketchum attorney Ben Worst notified Butlin that the airport site is on land zoned for agricultural use and that the airstrip would harm adjacent neighbors, agriculture and wildlife habitat.
Butlin then issued a stop-work notice at the airstrip site Sept. 21, writing that “airports are not listed in the zoning ordinance as approved use in the Agricultural District.”
Under the previous Camas County zoning ordinance, only feedlots, employee housing, stockyards, nurseries and roadside stands can be built on land zoned for agricultural use.
In mid-September, Butlin said in an interview that Camas County “does not regulate private airstrips under the current zoning ordinance.”
On Monday, the commissioners amended language in the new zoning ordinance that would allow commercial airports only on land zoned Industrial.
They also added language requiring individuals to obtain a conditional-use permit if they want to build a private airport in that zone, as well as in the Agriculture Transition and Agriculture-40 zones.
Commissioner Backstrom said the conditional-use permit can only be obtained through a public process and that the change allows the county to assess each project as it is proposed.
The commissioners separately defined private and public airports in the new zoning ordinance.
The new language defines a private airport as “any privately owned area or other facility used for the landing and taking off of aircraft, including all accessory taxiways, aircraft storage and tiedown areas, hangers and other necessary buildings not normally open to the public.”
Camas County resident Jeff Kreyssig said after the meeting that he felt that definition wasn’t specific enough.
“They had the opportunity to define a private airport by its usage, and I think they should have done that because the private-public thing is vague,” he said. “I think the intent of having a conditional-use permit on agricultural land is so that that the private airport services the property owner, and this [language] leaves us open for any kind of venture, as long as it’s not commercial.”
During a public comment hearing Nov. 28, several local residents questioned Willis’ intentions with Soldier Field Airport.
Twin Falls attorney Gary Slette, who represents Willis, said he supported airports being allowed in the Agriculture District, but offered no indication of what Willis plans to do with the site.
Willis’ property manager, Mike Grbic, declined to comment on the matter when reached by phone Tuesday.
Camas County resident and author Judith Freeman questioned Willis’ motives in a letter addressed to the actor, which was published in the Nov. 4 edition of the Idaho Mountain Express.
“A long dirt airstrip is just the beginning,” Freeman wrote. “Willis is going to finally put the airport on the land where he tried to get it located years ago when he wanted to donate the same 2,000 acres to relocate Friedman [Memorial Airport].”
That offer in 2004 was opposed by Camas County residents and by the county business and resort community, who said it’s too far from the Wood River Valley.