20-09-14 Camas airport@ WF.jpg

Plans for the proposed Soldier Field Airport state that in the third year of operation, the airport could see about 1,500 landings or takeoffs on an airstrip 8,500 feet long and 150 feet wide.

Roughly 80 people—about one-thirteenth of the population of Camas County—turned out for a planning and zoning meeting Tuesday night to debate the potential risks and rewards of allowing a private airport to be built east of Fairfield.

No decisions were made at the six-hour public hearing, which was moved to the school gym to accommodate the crowd and lasted into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Three proposals were up for debate: a change to the county’s comprehensive plan future land use map, the rezoning of about 300 acres of the 1,600-acre site, and a conditional-use permit to pave the way for Ix-Nay Investment Trust to build the airport itself. But public testimony centered less on zoning technicalities and more on how the proposed Soldier Field Airport could shape the future of Camas County.

Residents who testified at the meeting agreed that economic and population growth is needed if the Camas community and its small 150-student school are to survive and thrive in the decades ahead. Deborah McLam, a third-generation farmer on the Camas prairie, recalled graduating with a class of about 20 students—a cohort twice the size of the 2020 graduating class—when she attended Camas County High School. At that time, she said, Fairfield had a doctor, a pharmacy and two grocery stores surrounding a robust Main Street.

“I understand change and I believe we need it,” McLam said, echoing similar sentiments from other county residents. “We used to have a lot more people that lived here and worked here, and that’s what we need back.”

The more contentious question: whether a new private airport, constructed about 10 miles east of Fairfield, would contribute to or detract from that growth.

Speakers in support of Soldier Field Airport—including McLam and Twin Falls-based attorney Gary Slette, who represented applicant Ix-Nay Investment Trust—argued that the airport would bring new visitors to the area to support local businesses, expand the county’s tax base, and provide jobs that don’t require a commute to the Wood River Valley.

“We have all sorts of opportunities here in Fairfield that we haven’t developed because we don’t have an airport here in Fairfield,” Camas resident Lee Barron said. “For the life of me, I don’t see why a man can’t build an airport on his own ground if he wants to.”

Opponents countered that passengers flying into the airport were more likely to spend their money in Sun Valley than in Camas County and said they worried that the noise and aesthetics of an airport would make the county’s east side a less desirable place to live, bringing down home values and discouraging people from moving to the part of the county most convenient for Wood River Valley commuters.

“Living in a rural setting in close proximity to the Wood River Valley is attractive to newcomers who wish to settle in this area,” said Donna Koch, a rancher and Camas County resident. “What a travesty it would be to take this selling point away and forever change the character of this area.”

The roughly 300 acres up for rezoning are currently zoned to allow for the development of 60 five-acre residential properties, which some opponents of the airport suggested would be a better use of the land. The owner of the site has “no interest” in developing those homes, Slette said.

“Just because it’s zoned that way doesn’t mean it would be developed that way,” Slette said.

While the individuals who make up Ix-Nay Investment Trust have not been publicly identified, Bruce Willis is widely rumored to be behind the project. Willis used Ix-Nay Investment Trust to purchase several properties in Hailey in the 1990s, according to past reports by the Idaho Mountain Express. 

In 2004, Willis offered to donate land in Camas County near U.S. Highway 20 as a potential relocation site for Friedman Memorial Airport. The site was ultimately not chosen, however, and the relocation effort stalled. In 2016, Willis began construction on a dirt landing strip in the area—sparking backlash from some Camas residents—but work on the airstrip was halted after officials found that the site was on land zoned for agricultural use.

The following year, Camas County commissioners passed an ordinance allowing private airports registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to be built without a county permit on agricultural land that falls under the AG-80 zoning category. The county’s zoning ordinance on airports was changed again in 2019, making it necessary to obtain a conditional-use permit to build a private airport on AG-80 land.

A portion of the proposed Soldier Field Airport site is currently zoned under the AG-5 category, which doesn’t allow airports as a primary or conditional use of the land—hence the request to rezone 300 acres from AG-5 to AG-80.

If approved, the proposed Soldier Field Airport would accommodate a range of airplanes, according to the applicants, from small single-engine planes to private-use Boeing 737 aircrafts. Planes the size of the Boeing 737 are not allowed to land at the Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey due to weight limitations.

“None of the people in this room are going to get on an airplane at that airport unless you happen to be invited by some really wealthy guy,” Camas County resident Bill Besst said at the public hearing, arguing against the conditional-use permit application. “Because that’s what we have here, a bunch of really wealthy guys. They can’t land their big planes over in Hailey, so they have to bring their big planes here.

“It looks to me that this just makes us Blaine County’s doormat,” Besst continued. “The [proposed] airport is surrounded by people who are not rich, and we can’t take on these people.”

The at-times-heated meeting concluded with the filing of a police report: Slette told the Mountain Express on Wednesday that after the meeting he discovered one of the tires on his car had been slashed. The incident is under investigation, the Camas County Sheriff’s Office said.

The county planning and zoning board will decide at its upcoming regular meeting on Oct. 6 whether to approve the proposals that would allow Ix-Nay Investment Trust to move forward. If the changes are approved, the matter will go to the Camas County commissioners for consideration.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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