Jerry Ball was sitting on his sofa one night last fall when he spotted something strange out the front window of his new house: A blinking light just beyond a neighbor's backyard.
"Wonder what that could be," Ball, 74, remembers thinking to himself.
The answer has since become all too familiar. It is an approach beacon guiding pilots toward the Rock Hill/York County Airport.
When Jerry and his wife, Thelma, moved into the Stafford Park subdivision last summer, they understood a municipal airport was nearby. But they didn't realize just how close it was until they heard jets buzzing overhead in the initial weeks. And the couple says they knew nothing of plans for a longer runway that will attract thousands more planes over the next decade.
The Balls moved in during the summer, at a time when they said leaves on the trees blocked their view of runway lights barely 200 yards from their front steps.
Now, they find themselves caught up in a fight that threatens to cause even more frustration. They're among dozens of homeowners organizing one of the most coordinated not-in-my-backyard campaigns Rock Hill has seen in years.
At stake: a city/county proposal for an airport overlay district that would restrict development and require people buying and selling homes to sign disclosure forms acknowledging they're in "nuisance zones," areas within close proximity to flight paths.
The rules are tied to plans to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet as a way to attract more corporate jets and private pilots. With a longer runway, the number of takeoffs and landings could double to 88,000 per year over the next 15 years.
Hoping to prevent that, neighbors have deluged city and county council members with e-mails asking them to change or drop the proposals altogether. They set up a Web site, NoAOD.com, to keep each other updated.
Their fears are two-fold: First, the disclosure statements will scare off potential homebuyers and drive down home values. Second, more jet traffic will cause more noise and frustration.
"Where will you expand the next time you need room?" Mike Bailey of Keswick Lane asked in an e-mail to elected officials. "We live in Rock Hill because we do not want the fast pace and pollution of Charlotte."
A long-simmering conflict
It's not a new problem. Conflicts over land use around the airport have simmered for about a decade. But now, critics say, years of oversights have culminated in the current confrontation.
"I wish the city had just really come down hard and said, 'We need to look at this,'" said Gene Musselwhite, who retired in 2006 as the city's airport administrator. "(But) they put it on the back burner."
Neighbors have earned at least a temporary reprieve. Five community meetings will be held beginning Wednesday to field questions, explain the rules in greater detail and, potentially, hammer out compromises.
Local officials ordered the sessions in response to criticism from homeowners who said they were not informed of what's going on. Officials have since acknowledged the oversight, saying they didn't notify a broad enough swath of neighborhoods.
"I don't think we did everything we could have or should have," County Manager Jim Baker said. "We have to deal with the perception of leaving someone out of the process."
Did they see it coming?
Sitting in their living room one afternoon last week, Jerry and Thelma Ball voiced an argument shared by many neighbors.
"We all knew a small airport was there with small planes, and that was it," Thelma Ball said. "Nobody ever said anything to us that it would be expanded."
While many neighbors claim to be caught off-guard, the question is whether they could have seen it coming. The airport has operated since 1959.
"It's like people who buy homes around the farms and then complain about the chickens," said County Councilman Rick Lee. "I understand the dilemma some of those folks face, but it's not an unreasonable thing to expect that an airport would grow."
The motivation to build a longer runway is clear: More airplanes translate into more tax dollars for the city and county. When jets land, they often spend more than $1,000 on fuel that sells for about $4.80 per gallon.
Also, 105 planes are stored at the facility by owners who pay annual rents of $700 and up.
"The reality is that the airport has been there a long time," said City Manager Carey Smith. "A great deal of public dollars have been invested. The public interest, to me, would say that investment should continue to be realized in the way of increased activity."
Neighbors argue they have gotten mixed messages about the basis for the new rules. Among the reasons offered by local officials:
• Long-range city planner Christine Fisher said two weeks ago at a Rock Hill Planning Commission meeting that it's about protecting vacant land in the flight pattern.
"This zoning is not about airport extension or expansion or anything else," she said. "This is about ensuring land-use compatibility."
• Last week, in an interview, Smith cast the proposal in terms of improving safety.
"We would be pursuing the airport overlay whether the runway was being extended or not," he said.
But none of that is what Smith told City Council members in a memo sent in December. In the memo, he said tighter rules would help convince state and federal levels to kick in money for the runway, estimated at $14 million.
"This zoning plan helps demonstrate the City's commitment to protect the approaches to the airport and makes the millions of dollars invested in a runway extension worthwhile in the minds of the FAA and SCDOA," the memo stated.
These conflicts are expected to play out at the upcoming neighborhood meetings. Fifty Stafford Park homeowners met in a cul-de-sac on a recent Sunday afternoon to plot strategy.
"I don't think we've seen the end of it," said Thelma Ball. "After that meeting Sunday, it's just the beginning."