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Farmland targeted by Columbia airport expansion plans

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:59 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 9, 2013
Planned Columbia Regional Airport upgrades include a road that will be built through land held by a few nearby property owners.

COLUMBIA — James Phillips remembers a time before Columbia became a bustling hub of commerce and enterprise, a time when the city’s southern border extended no farther than Boone Hospital Center. 

“Columbia just opened up after World War II and blowed up in all directions,” he said.

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For the 80-year-old landowner, times are changing far too quickly. Today, 40 acres of his 229-acre property are slated for purchase by the city as part of a plan to expand and boost safety at Columbia Regional Airport.

Phillips worries about how the loss will affect his land. Eighty-five acres — including the section the city seeks to buy — are leased for farming, and he turns a profit by cash-renting to a farmer who owns a seed company in Ashland. He’s especially disappointed with what he perceives as a lack of effort on the part of city and airport officials to keep him informed.

“They never have told me nothing,” he mused.

***

Phillips' farm has seen better days. With the aid of a cane — a necessity since his knee surgery nine years ago — he walks carefully around the property and points out the battered landmarks that adorn the land, memories from a forgotten time.

There’s the house where he grew up, a ramshackle wooden edifice constructed in the 1860s. Many of its windows are broken, and its sideboards are beginning to strip away. Wet, fallen leaves from a towering soft maple have rotted sections of the roof away, and holes appear between the dark shingles like gaping, cavernous mouths.

“It’s getting kind of like an antique,” he said. “I’m an antique.”

Phillips lived in that house until 2004, when his doctor ordered him to stop climbing stairs. A little further down the dirt road, past the rusted farm equipment, is another great landmark of his life: the faded red barn where he keeps his cattle during rough weather. The livestock has been his responsibility since he was 15, the year his father died.  

These days, Phillips enjoys a peaceful, pastoral existence with his faithful companion Jack, a mutt thrown out of a stranger’s truck and into Phillips' life on a slushy April morning a couple of years ago. The black and brown dog often wanders off to explore the farmland but is quick to return to his master’s side.

It’s mostly quiet where Phillips lives, but not always. At 3 p.m., the stillness is abruptly broken by the roar of a jet plane taking off from the airport. Phillips follows the plane’s arc with his eyes and takes a minute to survey the land around him.

“I think I’ve lived here for so long, I don’t think I could leave it now,” he said.

***

The first Columbia airport was built in 1928 on property that is now Cosmo Park. The current Columbia Regional Airport was built off Route H, just north of Ashland, in 1968 to allow for a larger facility and future expansion.

In 2009, the Columbia City Council unanimously approved a capital improvement plan calling for redesigning and rebuilding elements of the airport to improve safety.

Once implemented, the plan would add a combined 1,998 feet to the airport's two runways, extend taxiways, reroute sections of Route H and South Rangeline Road to accommodate the expansion and repave the airfield, among other changes. The city will need to acquire 52 acres to make room for the expansions.

The upgrades will cost $65 million in federal, state and local funds: $41.4 million will come from the Federal Aviation Administration, $6.3 million from the Missouri Department of Transportation and  $17.3 million from the city.

Earlier this year, a draft environmental assessment conducted by the aviation consulting firm Reynolds, Smith and Hills Inc., determined there were no significant environmental or socioeconomic effects to implementing the plan and recommended the city follow through.

A report presented at the April 1 City Council meeting indicated that about $1.2 million is being transferred from the runway expansion project to a fund that will bring the airport terminal into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

John Riddick, a member of the Airport Advisory Board, said construction already is underway on Taxiway A, which he hopes to see completed by summer. Upgrades that will require the city to buy more land probably remain two or three years away, he said.

When the runway expansions are completed, Riddick said, they will enable the airport to accommodate larger airplanes, which in turn will provide more travel options. 

"It would be good for the economy, good for the local economic development," he said.

Still, Riddick said, he's unsure what the immediate future holds in light of the federal government's sequestration this year.

"I don't know what's going to happen now," he said. "This recent bill in Congress would take money from the capital improvements fund."

***

Phillips’ land has been in his family since the turn of the 20th century; his uncle bought the property in 1909 and sold it to Phillips’ father six years later.

A love of the Missouri countryside runs in his blood. His great-great-grandfather was a state senator and one of the original UM System curators, and his family has lived in the area since before Boone County was created from a section of Howard County in 1820.

Phillips never married and has no children. When he dies, he said, the land will be broken up between the remaining heirs to the Phillips trust: about 12 total.

The city has yet to name a price for his property, he said.

"They can let us know what's going on," he said. "They'll make their offer, and then we'll see what their dollar is."

Phillips tried to attend an open house about the airport plans that the city held in February. He was unable to do so, though, because it took place in an upstairs room. His disability prevented him from getting there.

“I couldn’t climb the steps," he said. "I was there, but ... I found out I couldn’t go up and down the steps. So I left.” 

***

The other tract slated for purchase by the city belongs to Robert White, a retired construction worker.

It’s a bountiful swath of land, teeming with wildlife and wilderness. Deer and squirrels thrive on the property, and a man-made lake stocked with bass, catfish and crawfish runs along the east side of the property.

White, a third-generation farm owner, says his farm has been around for more than half a century. The land once belonged to his grandfather, Robert Luther White, and later passed to his father, Robert Luther Jr.

White's grandfather used to own a lot of property in the area, he said, including a plat further south and another one at what is now the southeastern edge of the airport. Both parcels were purchased decades ago to make room for the facility.

White talks about the land fondly.

“It was some of the best farmland in Boone County — rich soil, record crops,” he said. “It’s still good farmland…what they didn’t cover up with concrete.”

The city plans to buy 4 1/2 of White's 60 acres, and he worries that the remaining acreage will have to adhere to strict zoning and height regulations that effectively prevent him from using the land for certain kinds of development.

"Hopefully they'll offer a fair price," he said, "but it does put restrictions on the rest of the property."

Still, White said he’s come to accept that he'll have to adapt as the airport grows.

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “It’s there. It’s not as quiet as it used to be.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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Comments

Lawrence Garvin May 8, 2013 | 8:50 a.m.

The airport is under utilized now and spending millions of dollars is going going to enhance flying out of COMO, I don't so. Seems to make as much sense as tearing down eight homes to widen Providence to shorten the evening commute by a few minutes.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders May 8, 2013 | 11:39 a.m.

Just more welfare for the rich, under the guise of "community improvement."

In other words, business as usual.

Better yet, this madness won't end until AFTER they've destroyed the entire economy. The worse they make things, the bigger mandate they believe they have to "fix" it.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 8, 2013 | 12:58 p.m.

I still have no hope for a fully viable airport until the area surrounding the airport is developed by businesses that use the place heavily. Ashland? You annexed a bunch of land around there. Why are you so quiet and not eating Columbia's lunch?

There are simply too many folks in Columbia who want us to stay a sleepy, tax-dependent burg; as a consequence of decisions related to those desires, our population will not grow at a rate sufficient to support an enlarged airport.

In our case, it's not passengers first.....it's business first.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders May 8, 2013 | 1:30 p.m.

Michael, unless MU closes up shop, Columbia will never be anything BUT a tax dependent burg.

Or should I say, "student-loan bubble dependent?"

Too bad these schools don't teach the INESCAPABLE consequences of the exponential growth of debt. But hey, I guess that's why tuition to the "School of Hard Knocks" looks so cheap.

All of the government spending in the world can never counteract the real effects of all of the government spending in the world, which is mass impoverishment.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 8, 2013 | 3:32 p.m.

Richard: Columbia's main business is universities, medical, and insurance....all dependent upon someone elses' money from elsewhere in the state.

Hereabouts, we don't like blue-collar...it's as though we "say" we support blue-collar folks, and fight for them, but we don't want to associate with them.

I've lived in Columbia for 41 years. Year after year I've watched folks strive for a viable airport, saying "if only we will do [fill in the blank], and year after year I see only failure. It's my experience that if an outcome is not what you expect, time and time again, it's probably time to reevaluate the underlying believed "truths".

Hell, the way things are now, I'm convinced STL could go out of business and folks would STILL use MCI instead of COU. Checked prices lately? I've not seen the demographics of fliers out of COU, but I'm guessing the bulk are university, medical, and insurance types using corporate/taxpayer dollars instead of us hoi polloi who seek the cheapest fares possible. Caveat: I could be wrong on this, but it would take data to convince me otherwise.

We need to develop the airport with businesses that NEED the immediacy of the airport.

(Report Comment)

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