PARIS — County officials are exploring the possibility of shutting down the Oxford County Regional Airport’s runway, one of several options under review in the face of mounting costs and little use. 

Officials have been grappling with the situation since the county evicted the airport’s sole tenant — Oxford Aviation, an airplane refurbishment business — last year for violating the conditions of their lease. 

Because it’s an unmanned facility, there’s no firm tally on the number of pilots taking off and landing. Although the runway is open, it’s widely believed traffic has ground to a halt, in part because of a spell when there was no gasoline for pilots to refuel. 

To offset its own bills and re-establish traffic, the county is attempting to woo new suitors to run an aviation business inside the hangars.

Those efforts run afoul of significant financial hurdles: The buildings are in disrepair, requiring several hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of work that officials hope a prospective business will pay. 

According to County Administrator Scott Cole, discussions with several businesses have been underway for several months. Glen Holmes, director of economic development for Community Concepts, a Lewiston-based nonprofit, said by phone Friday that advanced negotiations with an airplane refurbishment business are ongoing, with a chance for a deal to be wrapped up in the spring. 

To broaden appeal to non-aviation businesses, Cole said the county could seek permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to redesignate the hangars, divorcing their usage from the airstrip. He indicated the agency, which oversees all civil aviation, might approve that move. 

What it opposes is the county’s backup plan if a new tenant cannot be found: closing the runway, effectively removing the land strip from the network of public places a pilot can touch down. 

“County officials are studying the overall situation surrounding the airport, to include FAA officials’ communications to date,” Cole said.

By contract with the FAA, the county must keep the airstrip clear and functioning. In return, the airport receives 90 percent federal funding for capital improvement projects. The state pitches in 5 percent, and the county another 5 percent. Regular maintenance costs run taxpayers about $60,000 per year. The county cannot close the airport without approval. 

Yet, according to County Commissioner Steven Merrill, it makes little sense for taxpayers to foot the bill for an unused airstrip when the buildings could be repaired and turned into an industrial park. 

“If we had a tenant, it would be worth (keeping the airstrip) open,” Merrill said. “Without one, it’s $60,000 just to keep the doors open.”  

Richard D. Yarnbold, a private consultant hired to advise the county, said the FAA has polices in place for closing an airport, though each case is unique. 

“Nationally, airport closures are rare and difficult to accomplish,” Yarnbold said. “Any discussion would be a long, enduring conversation. It’s not a simple matter at all.”  

The procedure for closing an airport is not clear, and Cole said it appeared an unlikely endeavor.

Messages left with the regional branch of the FAA, the New England Region Airports Division, were not returned.

In a meeting last fall, Cole said officials intimated that the county would have to justify its request and resolve several issues before the agency would move forward with a request to close.

In addition to the effect on pilots and state requirements, the county could have to repay the FAA nearly $750,000 of $2.9 million invested in the property since 1989. 

“They’re doing their job, and we respect that,” Cole said. 

But, he noted, the situation is about more than money. With an airport 12 miles away in Auburn, and one each in Fryeburg and Bethel, there are plenty of options for pilots.  

The county will have plenty of time to weigh the decision. Two weeks ago, Cole said the deadline to submit an application for capital funding was postponed until 2016, giving county commissioners, the elected officials overseeing county government, time to plot the airport’s future. 

“The FAA is not in the business of closing airports or runways,” Yarnbold said. “It’s in the business of maintaining the system.” 

[email protected] 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.