Sun Lakes leaders worry that Gila River Indian Community plans to redevelop an airstrip just west of the retirement community will create a noisy safety hazard, and complain the tribe has ignored repeated pleas for more information.
The presidents and managers of the three homeowners associations, which represent Sun Lakes’ nearly 18,000 residents, have sent letters seeking help from members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Jim Graham, administrator for the Sun Lakes HOA nearest the reservation, said he and others are worried about the ramifications of redeveloping an airstrip that ends a little more than a mile away and would send flights on a path that bisects the community.
Graham said homeowners fear the Memorial Airstrip, built in the 1940s, will be redeveloped over the existing alignment and send planes flying over the community when they’re most vulnerable to crashing — during landings and takeoffs.
"We’d at least like for them to at least build the airport so it’s parallel to I-10, so they’re not angling the runway right over 18,000 people," he said.
Gary Bohnee, a Gila River tribal spokesman, said he’s aware of the congressional intervention but plans haven’t reached a point where there’s anything to discuss with residents of either Sun Lakes or the Gila River community.
He said issues such as the location and alignment of the airstrip will be broached "when the airport authority board begins discussions about it, but at this point I guess we’re not there.
"Our own community members probably have some of the same concerns as our non-community neighbors."
He said a redeveloped airstrip is probably years away from happening, but when it does it could serve not only the few tenants currently located there, but Intel and other corporations looking for easy air access to the south East Valley.
Bob Earl, a retired air traffic controller who lives in Sun Lakes, has been the retirement community’s point man with the tribe on this issue and shares Graham’s disappointment in not feeling like they’re in the loop on plans for the airstrip.
He said experience has shown him that it will be difficult to convince residents that a nearby airport does not pose a threat.
"I’ve had to deal with this problem throughout the country, and you know how perceptions are," he said. "If they think there’s a problem, in their mind it is a problem."