Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Albert Turkey

Albuquerque real estate agent Jeff Gilles gazes down at a festering problem
every time he flies his hot-air balloon.

Where to land?

With development exploding on the north side of town, the wide-open spaces
necessary to land aircraft that don't have steering are rapidly giving way
to houses, businesses and big-box stores.

Unless something is done to preserve balloon landing sites, "it's going to
become a crisis," Gilles said, for private balloonists and those who
participate in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

That's if nothing is done.

The good news, says Paul Smith, the fiesta's executive director, is that
with the right mix of land purchases, deals with parking lot owners and a
few other tweaks, Albuquerque can keep balloonists happy for years to come
by maintaining good landing sites.

His strategy:

Keep buying land to preserve open space. A proposal to buy the Vista del
Norte property (where Wal-Mart also has proposed a store) is a quantum leap
in the right direction, Smith said.

Monitor the number of balloons flying at one time during the fiesta, perhaps
staggering launches. That would mean fewer balloons competing for the
dwindling number of landing sites.

Work with businesses with large parking lots. Arrange deals where people
park only in certain spaces at certain times during balloon fiesta mornings.
Come up with ways to light those parking lots without having so many poles
that make life difficult for balloonists.

Do all that, Smith said, and Albuquerque should be able to preserve a
healthy balloon fiesta for the next generation.

In building that strategy, however, there's a critical question: Just where
can balloons land?

"I don't know if there is an answer to that question," Smith said, because
so many variables come into play.

Winds often blow out of the north, but not always, so just where the balloon
flights will end up depends on the day's weather. To make things even more
confusing, the wind at ground level is sometimes blowing in a different
direction than a few hundred feet higher.

The stronger the wind, the more limited the landing spots because it takes a
bigger landing zone.

Pilot skill is another factor, Smith said. Some balloonists can land on the
equivalent of a dime. Some can't. All kinds come to the fiesta.

"There are no absolutes," Smith said.

Other balloons can also create competition for prime landing sites. Unlike
helicopters or airplanes, balloons can't just hover or circle and wait for a
landing zone to clear, Smith said.

While balloonists would always prefer to land in wide open areas, landing on
developed parts of town is possible, especially if winds are under about 8

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, for example, lays
out the welcome mat.

"I think we'll always be happy to work with the balloonists," said John
Stomp, the water resources manager for the authority, which controls a large
chunk of land in one of the most common flight paths.

But where the land used to be vacant, it's now a sprawling complex of
buildings and facilities that will treat river water as part of the new San
Juan-Chama project, and that presents obstacles for balloonists. The
authority also leases part of its property to Vulcan Materials, a
construction supplier.

Stomp conceded that the authority's smattering of landing zones is "pretty
tight," and will get tighter as more buildings sprout on its property.

School playgrounds are also an option, though balloonists are discouraged
from landing during school hours, said Albuquerque Public Schools spokesman
Rigo Chavez.

City parks are open as well, officials say.

If winds push balloons north toward Sandia Pueblo, the landing situation
looks better.

"The balloonists are allowed to land on 98 percent of the reservation," said
Amber Flores Jordan, the pueblo's spokeswoman.

Last year, Sandia established several no-land areas, promising a $500 fine
to balloonists who didn't respect them. But in the end, the fine wasn't
enforced on the two balloons that landed there, Flores Jordan said.

The big landowners' words of welcome don't surprise Ed Adams, the city's
chief operations officer and the man who would supervise any land buys.

"Generally speaking, this is a very balloon-friendly community," he said.

Though their landing zones are tightening up, balloons aren't going away
anytime soon, the fiesta's Smith said.

"We will work with whatever there is," he said, but added, "the more open
space there is, the better."

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