Runway project at Bluegrass Station loses key support after local outcry

Published 1:15 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

By Liam Niemeyer 

Kentucky Lantern

Key supporters of a proposed airport expansion at Bluegrass Station, a state-owned industrial park at Avon in Fayette County, have changed their tunes after strong local pushback.

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Sen. Steve West, who represents Bourbon County, on Tuesday became the latest to abandon his earlier support for including the project in the next state budget. Gov. Andy Beshear withdrew his support last week.

West, a Republican, blamed the Democratic governor for failing to take the lead on selling the project. West faulted the administration for not providing opportunities for public participation or information on how the proposed funding would have been spent.

The GOP-dominated Kentucky House of Representatives earlier this month passed a state budget that included hundreds of millions of dollars to build a general aviation airport, which would create a 7,800-foot runway extending into Bourbon County. The state budget proposed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear also supported the airport but to a lesser degree, allocating $55 million for land acquisition.

Yet in the past week, Beshear, West and the director of the Bluegrass Station have all retracted their support in the face of opposition from Bourbon County landowners who feared the project would take prime farmland through eminent domain and destroy family farms.

Beshear in a Feb. 22 statement on social media said he “never supported” moving forward with the airport expansion if it didn’t have local support, saying the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs had proposed the project.

“Several elected officials who have supported the project both publicly and privately now claim they oppose it, and landowners are appropriately asserting their disagreement,” Beshear said in his statement. “It should not move forward, and I will not support its inclusion in any final budget this year, or in the coming years.”

In a letter posted on the airport project’s website the following day, Bluegrass Station director Steve Collins said the project was “closed” and apologized to elected officials and community members who had “endured unmentionable attacks” that should have been directed at him “as the driving agent for feasibility information.”

Collins, who had supported the project, told the Lantern that public outreach and engagement would have made sure people were heard during the land acquisition process once state funding was allocated. Collins described eminent domain as favoring the “needs of the many versus the wants of a few.”

A 2022 feasibility report commissioned by the legislature signaled eminent domain could be used for the project and also said its economic development impact could be significant: 3,000 to 6,000 new permanent jobs, $12 million to $20 million in annual tax revenues and more than $1.2 billion in private investment.

Earlier this month, West, who lives in Bourbon County, told the Lantern he supported the project, calling it an economic development “game changer.” He said then that using eminent domain was “always messy” but that he hoped state-led developers would be “generous” with owners selling their property for the airport.

But on Tuesday, West announced in a statement he was now against funding for the airport, saying that the “lack of communication and local involvement” regarding eminent domain and land impacts was “simply unacceptable.”

West in an interview said he and Rep. Matthew Koch, R-Paris, who also represents Bourbon County, received “zero information” from the Beshear administration, other than a video conference call with Collins, about how the project funding would be allocated and how eminent domain would be used.

“I expected some kind of scheduled public meeting, some type of written proposal or plan regarding eminent domain, a public private partnership, what that would look like,” West said. “I can’t sell this to my constituents. I have zero information.”

West said Beshear had “bailed” on the project and that he found it troubling the governor was blaming the Department of Military Affairs for proposing the airport plan. When asked about the House GOP budget’s support for the airport — much higher than in the governor’s budget — he characterized it as a “placeholder” out of “deference” to the governor’s budget request.

Crystal Staley, a spokesperson for Beshear, in a statement said the governor “has been crystal clear” that the project “would never move forward without community buy-in and support.”

“He said this in every meeting and conversation with lawmakers, local officials and the Department of Military Affairs,” Staley said.

She also listed three times the Department of Military Affairs notified the Legislative Research Commission, the nonpartisan research branch of the legislature, or lawmakers about the budget request for the airport project. That included when the department mentioned funding for the project among other budget requests presented before a legislative planning board last summer.

Ike VanMeter, a Bourbon County landowner and cattle farmer who owns about 1,500 acres near the Bluegrass Station, credited organizing and activism against the airport project for changing the minds of elected officials. That activism included holding a town hall meeting about the project. Bourbon County Fiscal Court passed a resolution opposing the airport expansion.

VanMeter said he believes that activism isn’t about “calling somebody out necessarily” but making sure “we have been heard.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know whose idea, or who was the majority of the drive behind this project,” VanMeter said. “Our concern as citizens for Bourbon County is stopping the project.”

VanMeter said the goal for concerned residents moving forward is to make sure funding for the airport project is missing from any state budget that passes the legislature.