PELLA — Voices were raised, along with plenty of opinions on Monday night, as the agency responsible for building a regional airport held a public hearing in Pella about acquiring Mahaska County land for the project.
Nine people spoke against the South Central Regional Airport Agency’s plans, while one voiced support. In the end, the SCRAA board voted to move forward on acquiring land, even if that requires the use of eminent domain.
Linda Kruseman of Leighton spoke on behalf of neighbors who farm in the area seen as the top option among airport sites. She said the airport isn’t needed for the economic growth of Pella and Oskaloosa.
“This airport is not needed, but merely a want, or a selfish desire,” she said.
She called eminent domain “bullying in its finest form.”
“Has this community become so cold and hard-hearted that you would do anything, no matter it takes, no matter what, to build this airport?” she asked. “I know these landowners. I’ve seen the pain in their faces, the tears in their eyes, and I’ve heard the heartbreak in their voices.
“The way that they’ve been treated has been horrible.”
Dwight Young of Pella said the airport is essential for economic growth.
“It’s absolutely necessary for the long-term growth of our our community,” he said.
Young said his farmland was needed years ago to build Highway 163 toward Des Moines. He negotiated a settlement for its sale.
“I gave up land that you drive on every day,” he told SCRAA board members. “It all worked out. I strongly support the airport and I request that you do also.”
But he was in a minority among a crowd at the Pella City Council chambers that grew restless and, at times, angry.
Dan Nugteren, a United Airlines pilot who grew up in Leighton, said he’s followed the airport process for many years and sees several holes in it. He took SCRAA board members to task for not answering his questions.
Nugteren questioned what kind of airport would exist on its first day of operation. Hangar space would be about the same as what’s available now between the Oskaloosa and Pella airports, and the runway would be considerably smaller than what the master plan says is needed, he said. Above all, he wondered about funding.
“There’s good idea fairies,” Nugteren said after the hearing. “You can always have a great idea, but it comes down to one thing. Show me the money. Where does the money come from?”
The master plan says the cities are supposed to sell their airports to buy land for the regional site, Nugteren said. But no studies have been done to see how much the cities can get for those sales, he said. Pella’s 5,400-foot runway also will need to be replaced to keep it operational until the new airport would be opened, in 2025 at the earliest, he added.
Anna Schaeffer lives with her husband and four children on land needed for the airport. Her father, Jim Van Zomgren, farms the land and missed the meeting to harvest soybeans. The stress of the airport talk has taken its toll on him, she said after the hearing.
“Losing that land would be a slap in the face,” she said.
Schaeffer told the airport board she speaks for the younger generation.
“That’s my inheritance,” she said. “It’s not for sale.”
The board adjourned without setting a date for its next meeting.