Presidio County officials hope to boost economy through Marfa airport improvements 

PRESIDIO COUNTY — At Wednesday’s meeting, the Presidio County Commissioners Court discussed potential improvements to the Marfa airport. Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe presented updates with Airport Director Chase Snodgrass that they hope will improve the functionality and safety of the facilities — and potentially pull in a little cash. 

The court first discussed updating the county’s land lease policy to reflect new language in leases offered to hangar owners. The topic might sound to most like a dry housekeeping item — but Beebe explained that the airport’s policies have been “a very touchy subject” for years.

He said that tensions had flared in commissioners court eight years ago when Loretto Vasquez held his seat. Local pilots and hangar owners were fired up because the county had been following a standard Federal Aviation Association guideline requiring that any structures left behind at the end of a lease become the property of the county. “The amount of protest at that meeting was severe,” Beebe said. 

As of January 2024, the county’s official policy now no longer requires that structures at the airport become county property after leases end, and the county “does not discriminate” when it comes to allowing hangar-owners to lease or sublease their buildings to others. “We want people to have their hangars and to be using their hangars,” Beebe said. “If anything, this county is maintaining too many buildings that we’re not using.” 

Per TxDOT figures, there are 30 “based” aircraft at the Marfa Airport. Despite its relatively small size, the airport is for the most part a self-sustaining entity: its chief source of revenue is fuel sales, not the leasing or sale of land. “We’re a model for how other towns of this size should be doing it,” Snodgrass said. 

He said that shifts in Marfa airport policy were contentious because of the airport’s history. It was originally an army airfield that was then donated to the county after World War II. For decades, it was self-governed by a board of local pilots. “People went and built structures, there were no rules,” he said. “Trying to transition from that to very stringent rules today requires a slow steady process that everyone can see.” 

County Judge Joe Portillo raised an important question in Marfa’s hot real estate market: is there anything in the lease that expressly prohibits people from living in their hangars? 

Snodgrass explained that — technically speaking — the lease does not, though FAA regulations prohibit hangars from being used for general storage, workshops or for anything other than a place to park and shield an aircraft from the elements. Despite the gray area, he said that he had had very few problems with tenants misusing their structures. 

Next, county officials discussed how to use a quickly-expiring pot of money: the Marfa airport has an accumulation of state and federal grant funding of around $1.6 million dollars left over from as far back as FY 2021. If the funds are not committed to a project this upcoming year, they will no longer be available for use. 

Snodgrass said that his proposed top priority went to improving the existing taxiway. For most local pilots, it’s long enough to comfortably maneuver — but for the larger private jets that land in Marfa for busy event weekends, it requires a series of sharp turns to navigate.

Beebe agreed, pointing out that it wasn’t in the airport’s best interest for “million dollar customers” to feel wary of touching down in Marfa. “It’s bad for business,” he said.