Compromise in airport feud?

Five public meetings, one apology and a few dozen e-mail exchanges later, is the airport controversy any closer to a peaceful resolution?

It depends on whom you ask.

Many neighbors remain staunchly opposed to new rules proposed around the Rock Hill/York County Airport, where jet traffic is expected to increase in coming years. Others are resigned to pushing for compromises from local officials, who pledge to take a second look before reaching any decisions.

Both sides say they at least have a better understanding of what's at stake. The so-called overlay district would impose limits on building and require people buying homes to sign forms acknowledging they're in special noise zones. The rules are tied to plans to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet to attract more corporate jets.

Neighbors fear more noise and lower property values.

At the first of five community meetings, York County Manager Jim Baker made a public apology for not doing enough to educate neighbors. He and others said the meetings would allow grievances to be heard.

"It got people asking questions and talking about the real issues," said homeowner Carter Langston, who lives in Channing Park. "It's regrettable it occurred so late in the game, but any time you've got public input, you're going to have better policy."

Some opponents are skeptical on whether more talk will lead to any meaningful changes.

"The format of the York County meeting last night was not to hear our voices but to present their proposal in their best interests," Stafford Park homeowner Jerry Ball said after one session.

Room for compromise?

The top source of anger has become clear: A proposed rule making buyers sign noise disclosure forms. The form reads, in part, that people on a given property "may be exposed to significant noise levels as a result of the airport operations."

Neighbors fear potential buyers will be scared off.

"I'd say the majority are bent out of shape about this declaration," said Walt Wunderlich, president of the Channing Park neighborhood association. "If I was going to buy here, that form is telling me, 'Are you nuts?' It's saying, 'Do not buy my house.'"

On this point, officials leave open the possibility of softening the language. In fact, Baker has told neighbors he dislikes the wording, too, and thinks it can be improved. Counterparts at City Hall haven't gone that far.

"We're going to look at every feature, including the disclosure statement, very carefully," said City Manager Carey Smith. "I wouldn't want to predict about what the outcome will be. I will say we intend to look at that particular feature."

More than 1,800 homes, some occupied and some not yet built, stand to be affected in a swath stretching from the shores of Lake Wylie down into northwest Rock Hill. Included are Stafford Park, Channing Park, Barron Estates, Wood Forest and a few lots in Wedgewood, among others.

Timelines take shape

Neighbors plan a forum at 7 p.m. on April 22 at Newkirk Baptist Church to get more questions into the open. But the process already appears to be moving forward.

City planning staffers are set to meet internally this week to begin looking at potential changes, Smith said. Next week, a joint meeting will be held between city and county staffers.

County leaders aren't done reaching out to neighbors yet. Baker and Council Chairman Buddy Motz plan to fan out for small group meetings with neighborhood association leaders.

At the city level, the next formal step will be a vote by the Planning Commission, which Smith expects to take place in late May or early June. After that, the proposal would go before the City Council in June or July.

As for the county, Baker is winning praise for his efforts to improve communication; the new manager has sent out a number of lengthy e-mails sharing his thoughts with neighbors and the media.

"We need to digest what people are telling us," Baker said last week. "Then, we'll start talking about next steps."