Local officials acted wisely in imposing tighter rules on land around the Rock Hill/York County Airport. But to improve relations with neighbors and prevent future controversies, they should do more to keep the public informed.
Those are two key findings in a long-awaited report from a group of business leaders, pilots and neighbors who spent five months studying the airport's operations and impact on the area.
More negative publicity, like the kind that surfaced over the past two years, could imperil the airport's future, the panel warned.
"We believe the vast majority of area citizens are not concerned about the airport or future prospects for expansion," the panel wrote in its report. "However, their neutrality could become compromised over time if airport opponents continue to generate publicity for their cause, and airport advocates fail to counter critics."
The airport landed at the center of controversy more than a year ago after local officials proposed tighter zoning rules on land near the runway flight patterns. The facility has operated since 1959 off Celanese Road on the city's fast-growing northwest side.
The now-approved rules aim to protect land close to the runway, where long-term plans call for a 1,000-foot extension that could attract more corporate jet traffic. Federal dollars are more readily available to airports where land restrictions have been imposed.
Hundreds of neighbors banded together to protest both the rules and potential runway lengthening, citing fears over lower property values and more noise in their back yards.
City and county leaders ultimately voted to impose the rules, but created the panel as a way to gather opinions and hear from all sides in the debate.
Some neighbors have voiced frustration, saying local officials came up with the panel as a public relations move.
"I don't know if they had this panel just to appease us," said airport neighbor Theresa Barcia, who lives in Stafford Park. "I'm sure they will notify us of meetings and things like that. But I'm not sure they really care what we have to say."
On the most contentious issue facing the airport -- building a longer runway at an estimated cost of $14 million -- the panel did not make an outright recommendation. Instead, it encouraged the city and county to continue exploring the feasibility of a lengthening. The group suggested hiring a third party to do an economic impact study on the airport's value.
As for the longer runway, panel members will leave that choice to the elected officials.
"It wasn't unanimous one way or the other, that's for sure," panel member Lonnie Harvey told The Herald. "That's going to happen when you have a diverse group of people."
The panel also offered a host of other ideas, such as urging local officials to send out more e-mails and mailings to airport neighbors, schedule regular open houses and appoint a single contact person to respond to complaints. It also suggested forming a permanent advisory committee of airport neighbors and community leaders to allow for better communication.
"Airport opponents have not abandoned their efforts," the panel wrote. "They will continue to challenge and question the value of Rock Hill-York County Airport, and they will vigorously oppose proposals to expand the airport and its runway."
In forming the group, the city hired Ted Matthews, a longtime York County resident and former Springs Global executive, to coordinate the effort. Matthews is being paid $28,000 for his role as facilitator, city documents show. The money comes from the airport's operating fund, officials said.
Matthews did not participate in the recommendations, he said, but organized the meetings and helped keep the discussion moving. The panelists volunteered their time.
5 key findings
-- The city and county were right to pursue zoning changes that protect the airport from development and other threats.
-- Officials should continue to explore extending the runway.
-- Instead of relying on legal ads and postcards, the city Web site, more e-mails and mass mailings should be used to keep neighbors informed.
-- Visual barriers, such as trees and shrubs, should be considered, and litter should be removed.
-- A third party should be hired to do an economic impact study to get a measure of the airport’s value.
Source: Community airport advisory group final report
Airport advisory group
-- Kathy Bigham, chairwoman — Thursday’s Too restaurant owner, chairwoman of the Winthrop University board of trustees
-- Butch Brindel — Piedmont Regional Association of Realtors CEO
-- Steve Couick — owner, Engine Power Source, located near the airport
-- Bob Elisha — US Airways Express pilot
-- Lonnie Harvey — human resources consultant, Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. board member
-- Rich McKenrick — airport neighbor, director of business operations, Westminster Presbyterian Church
-- Carter Langston — airport neighbor, public relations consultant
-- Luis Machicao — owner, Metropolitan Granite Countertops, located near the airport
-- Charlie Miller — Piedmont Medical Center CEO
-- Tammy Whisenant — airport neighbor, SpringsClose Foundation staff member
-- Gary Williams — CEO, Williams & Fudge college loan collection agency
-- Gardy Wilson — private pilot, Industrial Minerals president