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Publish Date: 3/6/2005

Airport keeps Erie grounded
Officials say facility could do better business if it were a destination


ERIE — Standing between Erie and a potential boon for the town-run airport is an antiquated sewer system with limited capacity.

Private pilots who own their own airplanes often fly from one small airport to another just for a bite to eat, paying for the airplane pilot’s proverbial $100 hamburger — $95 for fuel and $5 for the food.

Erie’s town-run airport, near Colo. Highway 7 and County Line Road, operates a booming fuel business, but it doesn’t sell food. That’s a shortcoming, Erie officials said.

The airport brings in approximately $8.1 million to the local economy every year — money that means a great deal to this growing community — but Erie officials say the facility could do better business if it were a destination for pilots.

Town Trustee Tom Van Lone — a pilot who has flown as far away as Granby just to eat — said the Erie airport would be “a lot more popular” with a restaurant.

But there’s a small problem clogging up that plan.

Town leaders won’t approve a restaurant at the airport unless it is connected to the town’s sewage system. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Like in many Front Range towns that were once rural, Erie’s growth potential — especially commercial development — is being held in check by the slow modernization of sanitation services.

Currently, wastewater from the airport and each house in the adjacent Erie Air Park Estates subdivision is treated by septic systems, which individually don’t have the capacity to handle waste from busy commercial and retail centers.

Septic systems, which are common in areas where houses are far from each other and a sewer plant, collect sewage in concrete or steel tanks buried in yards. Solid waste is separated from liquid waste in the tanks. And with each flush, new water entering pushes water in the tank out into a drain or leech field made of perforated pipes buried in trenches filled with gravel.

About half of the leftover sludge decomposes. The remainder must be periodically pumped out.

About 12.5 million septic systems nationwide are found in suburban areas, like those in Erie along Colo. 7 and in Mead.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency in January launched a national effort to improve septic systems to protect groundwater.

The EPA considers septic systems to be the second-greatest threat to groundwater quality facing the nation, second only to leakage from underground storage tanks.

The EPA and many local officials have long sought to move homes and businesses off septic tanks and onto municipal sewage-treatment systems as areas become more developed. But with about 25 percent of U.S. homes using septic systems, the EPA has acknowledged their widespread use will continue.

The Erie Municipal Airport used to be in a rural area, but suburbia has inched closer with growth in Lafayette and Erie.

An Erie sewer line passes the airport on its way out to the Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe subdivisions, but according to Erie leaders, there are no immediate plans to extend the line to the airport and Air Park subdivision.

Erie Trustee Greg McCallum said it should be a priority to extend the line to the airport, if not the subdivision. Many of the homes at Erie Air Park are new, and the septic systems have just been installed. If they are properly maintained, those tanks could last 30 years.

Booming residential growth in nearby Broomfield and at Vista Ridge makes the area appealing to retailers who could build along Colo. 7, McCallum points out — but not without a modern sewer system.

“I think one of the best things to do would be to extend the (sewer) line past the airport,” McCallum said. “I think, in general, not having a sewer line is an obstacle to any commercial development out in that area. I’d like to see that sewer line extended out there.”

Van Lone agrees.

“Maybe the town ought to cough up $200,000 to run the line out there,” he said, noting that the town could charge future businesses a portion of the cost later.

I-25 Business Park owner Ken Williamson said he faces a similar problem. He said he loses commercial entities interested in building on Mead’s outskirts because he has a septic system and can’t hook up to a modern sanitation service.

About five years ago, a developer asked if he could build a plant on Williamson’s land north of Colo. Highway 66 along the interstate. Williamson said he had to turn the developer away because the septic system couldn’t handle the load.

Mead said it could service the area, but, according to Williamson, the town wants him to pay to extend the sewer line to his property.

“They want me to pay for everything up front,” he said. “No one person is going to do that.”

Williamson — who lives in Mead’s decade-old Mulligan Lake Estates subdivision, where all the houses are serviced by septic tanks — said Mead officials don’t care about hooking people up to sewer service. He said Mead has done nothing to extend sewer service to his subdivision about a mile away from Old Town Mead.

“They’ve never had capacity to build,” Williamson said. “If my septic tank went out today, I’d have to put another one out there. It is not the desired thing to have.”

Williamson is one of several landowners working on an alternative to septic systems and municipal sewage treatment for a 3,000-acre swath of unincorporated Weld County, north of Colo. 66, along the interstate.

The East I-25 Sanitation District would allow the eight landowners to develop their lands cheaper and quicker. They believe the first phase of the project — building sewer line for about 3,300 acres — will cost approximately $2.5 million and could be online by late 2006.

For Erie’s airport and Air Park subdivision, the alternative is to connect to Lafayette’s nearby wastewater-treatment facility, on the northeast corner of Colo. 7 and County Line Road.

“There have been some people who have approached us about hooking on to our reclamation plant,” Lafayette Public Works director Doug Short said, although he noted that the cost may be prohibitive. “The only difficulty is that they would have to run a pipeline across Coal Creek. It’s doable. The complexity increases and the cost increases.”

Short said he wants to see the airport and Air Park subdivision move off septic, using either his system or Erie’s.

“I hate septic tanks,” he said.

Jenn Ooton can be reached at 303-684-5295, or by e-mail at jooton@times-call.com.

 

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