City and county leaders signaled a desire to move quickly on a sweeping set of suggestions at the Rock Hill/York County Airport, especially a call to reach out to neighbors worried over the airport's future.
Their comments come in response to recommendations from a panel of business leaders, pilots and neighbors who studied the airport and its impact on the area. The panel urged more outreach with surrounding neighborhoods and the general public, so that opinions are aired before decisions get made.
"It's important to try to answer questions before they are asked," Mayor Doug Echols said, reacting to the findings. "We need to have a very specific strategy so we can make sure there's nobody who comes forward at the end and says, 'I didn't know about it.'"
That's what neighbors said at the outset of a lengthy dispute that erupted nearly two years ago.
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After a half-century of relative calm, the airport became a source of controversy when local officials proposed tighter zoning rules on land and homes near the runway flight patterns.
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 declining property values and more noise in their backyards. They worry about more jets rumbling overhead as they descend on the facility, located since 1959 off Celanese Road on the city's northwest side.
In its findings, the panel warned the airport's future could be threatened by continued negative attention.
"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 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.
City officials hired Ted Matthews, a longtime York County resident and former Springs Global executive, to coordinate the panel's work. Matthews is being paid $28,000 for his services, documents show.
The city's airport commission doesn't have much experience with public relations, chairman Ralph Grigg said Thursday. But the group will do what it can to involve more people in discussions.
"We've been sitting in the commission meetings and nobody attends them," Grigg said in an interview. "It's like nobody really cares. They're always finding out about things after the fact. Then they get upset."
The longer runway wouldn't be built for at least six years, though local officials have said it could take a decade or more to put together money for the project, estimated to cost at least $14 million. Various environmental and aviation studies must be completed before plans are formalized.
A permanent advisory committee should be created to reach out to nearby residents and let them know about key issues and upcoming decisions, the panel urged. The committee also could provide a forum for comments and complaints.
Such a group could have headed off hostility over the development rules, or at least brought both sides together in a more productive way, said York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz.
"Had that been in place earlier, the communications would not have been like they were," Motz said.