Rock Hill airport plan upsets neighbors
From his backyard on Ulverston Drive, Robert Hinson can hear crickets chirping, wind rustling through the oak trees ... and private jets rumbling overhead as they swoop down from the sky.
"It's a city setting with a country aspect," is how Hinson describes the house he had custom-built seven years ago in Rock Hill's Stafford Park subdivision. "Until one of them planes comes in."
For Hinson and hundreds of his neighbors in northwest Rock Hill, the sound is about to get a lot more familiar.
The city and county are moving closer to building a 1,000-foot runway extension at the Rock Hill/York County Airport that aims to attract more corporate jets and charter aircraft. Over the next 15 years, takeoffs and landings are expected to double their current levels to 88,000 per year.
Construction is at least five years away, but the plans are already stirring fears among Hinson and others who live just beyond the runway. Many neighbors oppose a new proposal for tighter property rules around the airport because, in their view, the rules will drive down home values and open the way to even more jet traffic.
Local officials plan to impose an "airport overlay district" that dictates such rules as how high buildings can reach and how close they can stand to each other. More than 500 property owners likely are to be affected.
The district is expected to improve the city's chances for getting state and federal assistance to pay for the $14 million runway extension.
Neighbors particularly are worried about a requirement that people buying or selling homes inside designated "noise zones" must sign forms acknowledging an airport is nearby.
"It's almost like having a Wal-Mart come into your neighborhood," Rick Schnroeder told the city's Planning Commission last week. "It would be a big decrease in our values."
Some neighbors aren't as focused on home prices. They just don't want more jets buzzing their rooftops.
"My patio doors shake at night when the planes come in," said Carol Stroud, who moved into her home in 1967. "One of these days, one of these big planes, instead of making a big noise overhead, it's going to be in your cotton-picking backyard, and somebody's going to get killed."
Key to luring businesses, jobs
For Rock Hill's business community, the benefits of a larger airport are clear. Longer runways offer a prized amenity to companies scouting for places to relocate. That's because jets need certain lengths of pavement to get up to takeoff speeds.
"We lose business on hot summer days," airport director Eric Ramsdell said. "The air is thinner, the engines don't produce as much power. It's kind of like taking your airplane to the highest mountain in the country. They just require more runway to get airborne."
For the city, the added traffic also translates into potential for higher tax revenues from aircraft owners who pay to park their planes here. It is "the proverbial goose that could lay the golden egg for our airport," City Manager Carey Smith wrote in a recent memo to City Council members.
City and county officials openly acknowledge they allowed too many homes to be built too close to the airport. In the past eight years, more than 230 homes have gone up along the airport's western side in neighborhoods such as Pennington Place and Chelsea Woods.
"That's a good example of how not to zone," said S.C. aeronautics director Michael O'Donnell as he toured the facility two years ago.
The decisions were made mostly in the late 1990s before many leaders realized the airport's potential. In more recent years, smaller, non-commercial jetways have soared in popularity among corporate travelers because they require fewer security checks and shorter takeoff lines.
Business executives can touch down in Rock Hill and get to uptown Charlotte faster than if they use Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, as local boosters like to point out.
"Quite frankly, this is probably a result of an issue falling between the cracks," Planning Commission Chairman Tom Roper said in 2005, referring to subdivisions approved earlier. "When developers came in seeking development, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it."
Caught in the middle
Neighbors knew the airport was there when they moved in. Their contention is that the prospect of more traffic has taken them by surprise. Elsie Davis moved two years ago from Florida to be closer to her daughter.
"We were not told anything except, 'Oh, this isn't a busy airport,'" Davis said. "Now, we hear jets coming in. Today, they must have changed their flight patterns because they were coming right over our house."
The new zoning rules are winning praise from the state's aviation planner.
"This is one of the best zoning plans I have reviewed in my 29 years of state service," state official John Floyd wrote to the city in December. "I mean, you have covered everything that we and the FAA look for. It's obvious someone has done a lot of homework and research and held community meetings."
Those meetings aren't over. Dozens of neighbors plan to press their case in coming weeks. As they do, airport director Ramsdell said he'll try to make the best of whatever circumstances he's dealt.
"What's here is here," he said. "When I came on scene (in 2006), the homes were pretty much in place. The airport needs to be a good neighbor. We have a responsibility, too. And we don't take that lightly."
Airport by the numbers
Number of takeoffs and landings expected at the airport this year, including military, flight school and corporate jets
Number of takeoffs and landings projected 15 years from now
Length, in feet, of a planned runway extension that would attract more corporate jet traffic