Construction may soon be resumed on actor and former part-time Wood River Valley resident Bruce Willis’ airport in rural Camas County.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a Form 7480-1—which “requires all persons to notice the FAA at least 90 days before construction, alteration, activation, deactivation, or change to the status”—was filed for the Soldier Field Airport on March 1 by Jeffery Hogan, a project manager for the airport and a civil engineer for Jviation Inc.
In a phone interview on March 21, Camas County Planning & Zoning Administrator Dwight Butlin said he was unaware of any continued construction on the airport.
A voicemail left for Hogan on April 10 seeking comment on the project was not returned.
Camas County officials have been tangled up with decisions on the project since 2016, when Willis began constructing Soldier Field Airport, an 8,500-foot-long airstrip about 10 miles east of Fairfield.
Construction should be unaffected by a County Commission decision in January to reverse a previous amendment to a county zoning ordinance regarding private airports on agriculturally zoned land, essentially grandfathering in Willis’ airport and allowing for construction to carry on.
During a meeting Jan. 2, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend to the county commissioners that the zoning ordinance move “airports, private, with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval” from a principal designated use on Agriculture-80-zoned land to a conditional use. Commissioner Chuck Baldwin said “existing airports should be grandfathered,” according to the meeting minutes.
On Jan. 22, Commissioners Galen Colter, Marshall Ralph and Travis Kramer all voted in favor of a recommendation by the Planning & Zoning Commission for having private airstrips in Ag-80 be changed from a principal use to a conditional use. The vote reversed a decision made by the county commissioners in 2017 that amended the county zoning ordinance to allow private airports of unrestricted size and operation on Ag-80-zoned land as a principal use.
In an email to the Idaho Mountain Express on April 3, County Commissioner Kramer said the commissioners “reversed the decision after much deliberation at both the Planning & Zoning and commissioner levels as we came to the conclusion that making airports in the Ag-80 a special use rather than an allowed use would allow greater county control. …” He further stated that the definition of grandfathering would follow that of pre-existing uses and nonconforming uses as defined in the Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act and that “any airstrip that has had an airplane land on it before the current zoning ordinance amendment was passed would be considered an existing strip.” Kramer did not elaborate as to if or when an airplane has landed on Willis’ in-progress airstrip.
Camas County P&Z Administrator Dwight Butlin said an airplane has landed on the partially constructed dirt airstrip at Soldier Field, but could not provide details as to when.
“I do not have the date the aircraft landed. However, I did see the picture of the aircraft on the plowed dirt area of the runway. I do not know who has the picture at this time,” Butlin said in an email to the Idaho Mountain Express on April 8.
Even so, it remains unclear whether construction can legally take place on the proposed area, as 1,500 feet of the projected runway may be in a zone not designated for airports or airstrips as either a principal or conditional use.
In a letter sent to Butlin on April 13, 2018, Ketchum attorney Ben Worst, who was representing several Camas County residents at the time, stated that “upon closer inspection of the Camas County Zoning Map, it is apparent that a portion of the Ix-Nay Investment Trust’s land upon which it is currently constructing the Soldier Field Airport is zoned in Ag-5.”
In a phone interview with Worst on April 8, he said he was unaware of any continued construction at the site, and was still providing legal advice to residents in Camas County.
Meanwhile, the planned uses of the airstrip have not been made public.
How they got here
In mid-September 2016, when the Idaho Mountain Express reported that the Willis airstrip had several weeks of construction remaining, Worst notified Camas County Planning and Zoning Administrator Dwight Butlin that the airstrip site was on land zoned for agricultural use and would harm adjacent neighbors, agriculture and wildlife habitat.
At that time, Butlin said the Planning and Zoning Commission was working on a new draft county zoning ordinance, and that under the new ordinance, “aircraft landing fields and airports” could be built on land zoned for agriculture under a conditional-use permit as long as they “will not have an adverse effect upon adjacent developed land.” Butlin said the final decisions on the zoning ordinance would go through a public hearing process for the community to voice their concerns.
In 2017, Worst filed a lawsuit on behalf of Fairfield-area residents against Camas County contending that the county commissioners illegally amended language in the county’s zoning ordinance. Worst stated in the suit that the P&Z did not recommend that the county commissioners adopt a draft amended ordinance, a requirement under Idaho law, but rather that amendments be “considered.” He also argued that the county commissioners failed to seek legally required public comment when considering amending the zoning ordinance.
The residents won the suit, with Judge Robert Elgee in Camas County 5th District Court finding that the county commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Commission violated Idaho laws by ignoring the county’s comprehensive plan when drafting the ordinance and by failing to properly issue public notice when making a significant change to it. Elgee also stated that allowing airports of unrestricted size and operation, as the voided portion of the ordinance would have allowed, was in direct violation of the comprehensive plan, which places priority on the county’s rural character.
Then, in December 2017, Camas County once again made private airports a principal designated use in the Ag-80 zone, a decision that theoretically cleared the way for work to resume on Willis’ airport runway, until April 2018, when Worst noticed that a portion of the runway was in Ag-5.