Why not just move it?

In the white-hot dispute over the future of York County's municipal airport, a simple question keeps popping up: Why not just start over?

"With all the land in this area that's available, they could probably find (a site) where it wouldn't interfere with so many homes and people," said neighbor Rich Barcia. "I'm not a planner; it's just a thought in my mind."

It's likely to stay that way.

A new airport has never been seriously considered, city and county officials say, because it would carry a high price tag and less desirable location.

Still, the idea is being pushed by neighbors opposed to new rules that would affect homes near the current airport off S.C. 161 in northwest Rock Hill. The rules would require people buying and selling houses to sign disclosure forms acknowledging they're in "nuisance zones," areas within close proximity to flight paths.

It's part of a larger proposal tied to plans to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet. With a longer runway, takeoffs and landings could double to 88,000 per year over the next decade-plus as more corporate jets and private pilots choose to land here.

"Right now, people could live with what's there," said neighbor Linda Bailey. "But if it doubles in size, it'd be hard to have planes coming over your head all the time."

Though the runway project is expected to cost $14 million, defenders say an entirely new facility would cost far more. Seven years ago, Stafford County, Va., opened an airport similar in size to the one in Rock Hill. The price tag: $36 million.

"You would have to identify large tracts of land, have a large sum of money, bring utilities to it, design the air space, get approval from the FAA," said Mike O'Donnell, director of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission. "It would be a tremendous undertaking. You could be talking decades."

'Not an option'

Even if costs weren't a consideration, moving the airport would make little sense from a geographic standpoint, said Mike Fitzgerald, general manager for Skytech, which provides fuel and services for aircraft in Rock Hill.

The facility's location, 10 minutes east of Interstate 77, allows passengers to reach uptown Charlotte faster than if they land at Charlotte-Douglas International.

"It's absolutely not an option," Fitzgerald said. "If you were going to Hilton Head and the airport was 60 miles away, would that work for you? You use transportation to make it convenient for people to get to their final destination."

Other cities have started anew. The most notable example is Denver, where a facility twice the size of Manhattan opened in 1995 on vacant land northeast of the city.

A better comparison might be Stafford County, Va., where the new airport offers a 5,000-foot runway aimed at attracting jets that would otherwise fly into nearby Washington, D.C.

The opening took six years longer than expected. Two directors left, a nearby Interstate 95 interchange was delayed for 18 months and the airport's operating budget doubled, according to published reports.

Plans were delayed for a year while bird experts studied migration patterns, fearful that flocks would distract pilots trying to land.

Use money from land?

In Rock Hill, some neighbors ask whether the city and county could sell the 440-acre airport property to developers and spend the proceeds on a new facility.

"There's money involved to keep the airport where it is," said neighbor Sherryl Gwynn. "I think it definitely warrants people looking into. We have to consider what's best for the entire county."

The idea presents one more conundrum: The state and FAA have invested more than $4 million at the current site, and the money comes with certain stipulations. One is that the airport actually stay open.

"If you turn it into a shopping center, you need to pay them back, basically," said Fitzgerald of Skytech.

Rock Hill's first airport

Many years ago, planes did land in a different place. The city's first airport was started in a grassy farm field south of town on S.C. 72, thanks to the generosity of attorney John T. Roddey.

Roddey allowed the city to use the site rent-free, and Roddey Field was born in the 1920s. It had a 2,500-foot grass runway, a wind sock and some gas storage tanks.

When Hoechst Celanese first came to Rock Hill, company officials landed at Roddey Field in an old, military-type bomber that flew so low to the ground, the city had to come out and remove rock so people could get in and out.

Local leaders decided by the 1950s that it was time for a modern airport on a bigger piece of land. In that sense, the current dispute evokes memories of the not-too-distant past.

Dispute at a glance

• At issue: A proposed "airport overlay district" devised by the city and county. Neighbors are particularly worried about a requirement that people buying or selling homes inside designated "noise zones" must sign forms acknowledging an airport is nearby. Some aren't as bothered by the rules; they just don't want more jets buzzing above their rooftops.

• Why: The district is expected to improve the city's chances for convincing the state and federal governments to kick in money for a $14 million runway extension. The new rules also will improve safety by preventing more homes from being built inside flight patterns, supporters say.

• Who: More than 500 property owners are likely to be affected.