Public input on airport district welcome, needed

I have received a number of inquiries about airport expansion and the proposed Airport Overlay District during the past two weeks. Some have come directly to me and some have been referred to me by County Council members or county staff. I'd like to address some of the most common questions and comments we have received but, first, I'd like to offer a brief apology to anyone who did not receive a personal notice about the proposed overlay district.

When the public hearing process for the overlay district was first conceived, the concept was to provide broad public notice so that all the affected residents had an opportunity for input. There were public announcements in the media and notices were mailed to some of the property owners in the proposed overlay districts. However, a significant number of the residents failed to receive any personal notice. This was an unfortunate mistake and, understandably, it damaged our credibility with the residents in the area. Since then, we have tried diligently to make sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard using reverse 911 phone calls in addition to mailed notices and media announcements to get the word out. We hope the series of drop-in meetings that have recently begun are the first step in re-establishing our commitment to explain why the overlay district is proposed and to listen to your concerns.

Initially, I want to clear up conflicting assertions that the overlay district is or is not "needed" to support an airport runway extension. The overlay district is, in many ways, related to the proposed runway extension but it is not a requirement or a precondition for federal funding of that project. The anticipated runway extension is actually a part of the Airport Master Plan, which was developed in 2003 and approved by the FAA in early 2004. The master plan included the proposed runway extension as its centerpiece, and this expansion plan substantially predates the first discussions of the overlay district. Since then, the runway extension plan has been strategically divided into phases to limit the amount of federal funding requested in any given year. Some of the initial phases of the expansion (land acquisition and preliminary design) already have been approved for federal funding. The most costly phases, including actual construction of the runway itself, have not yet been approved. The airport plan doesn't anticipate the extended runway will be completed until at least 2012.

The master planning and approval processes were not conducted secretly. All Airport Commission meetings were and are open to the public. More importantly, while I was not here in York County at the time, I reviewed the archives of local papers and quickly discovered that the entire process, including many articles explicitly discussing plans to extend the runway and the ultimate approval of the master plan by the FAA were thoroughly covered. The airport and many local leaders were candid and upfront about their support for the runway extension and growth in airport operations. While it is certainly possible that many people now living in the surrounding neighborhoods never took notice of the expansion plans, this was not due to the information being unavailable or difficult to find.

While the Airport Overlay District is not needed to support runway extension or to acquire federal funding for this project, and it wasn't initiated until sometime after the Airport Master Plan was adopted, it is directly related to that plan. The FAA recommends quality land-use planning of the areas surrounding any airport as a means of securing the long-term viability of these transportation assets. Consequently, the FAA urges communities to recognize the potential for growth and adopt forward-looking land-use controls in conjunction with any airport master plan. Undoubtedly, the adoption of our Airport Master Plan prompted city and county planners to re-examine the existing land uses around the airport and look for ways to harmonize future development with the anticipated long-term growth of the airport. While residents may disagree with the recommendations flowing from that re-evaluation, I would hope everyone recognizes the importance of anticipating future trends in our community and trying to reconcile the projected patterns of growth with compatible land uses. This is what good government is all about. Some in the area may well argue that this should have been done more effectively years ago. However, even if this criticism is a valid one, that is even more reason, not less, to be proactive today.

Are the airport's needs taking precedence over the surrounding residents? Is this all about the city and county "making money" through airport expansion? First of all, the airport isn't a profit center for either the city or the county, and neither will "make money" as a direct result of any expansion. In fact, the city and county typically have to invest local money at the airport in order to be eligible for federal funding.

Airports have simply become one component of an overall transportation infrastructure system that makes a community an attractive location for residents and businesses alike. In colonial times, thriving cites were built around rivers because that was the prime transportation means for commerce. In the 1800s, railroad lines replaced rivers as the prime mover of goods and many cities grew up around mainline railroad tracks. In the mid-1900s, the interstate highway system took over, and you need look no farther than the Interstate 85 corridor to see how this has influenced economic development. More recently, airports have become increasingly important economic engines.

Some folks have observed that corporate airplanes can be very expensive and could produce a great deal of property tax revenue. Candidly, that might be a nice side effect if wealthy airplane owners base their planes here and help to fund our schools, roads and public safety costs. However, property tax revenues have not been a prime motivating factor here or in most communities I'm familiar with. In fact, many communities have offered tax abatements for airplanes as a means of incentivizing the economic benefits from a productive airport operation. The real value to the community is centered on establishing our area as having the transportation infrastructure needed to be a thriving business center in 2008. The airport is only one part of this picture but it is an important one.

It is also critical to understand the intended role for the Rock Hill/York County Airport both now and in the future. Ironically, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the airport, and it has already gone through many cycles of change and incremental growth over the years. The expectation of continued airport growth should not be a surprise to anyone. However, this airport isn't designed or intended to be a commercial passenger center like Charlotte/Douglas and, even with the extended runway, this is not a viable option.

Both the existing runway and the proposed extension are limited to a maximum aircraft weight of 60,000 pounds. Therefore, the extension would not really allow bigger, heavier airplanes to use the airport. However, it would allow planes to make better use of the current weight capacity and take off with full fuel loads year-round. In the summer, when temperatures are higher and the air is thinner, some planes toward the higher end of the existing runway weight capacity cannot take off with full fuel tanks.

If the extended runway won't allow bigger planes to be stationed here, why does the Airport Master Plan project so much growth? First, the "doubling" of operations that some people have talked about is projected to take place over a long period of time (20 years). In addition, as air transportation evolves and large airports become more and more focused on passenger traffic, prime reliever airports suchas ours are playing a larger role in business flying. Security in the aftermath of 9-11 has also influenced this. The city and county investments in the airport were designed to promote economic development in the community and were certainly not intended to just support local recreational users. More importantly, the Airport Master Plan is a response to demands for more hangers, more flights and more flight-related businesses. It has not been premised on an "if we build it, they will come" mentality.

How does the overlay district fit into this picture? First, as indicated above, the airport is an evolving economic resource that is likely to grow over time. It isn't practical or sensible to rebuild it somewhere else any more than would make sense to build roads in the western part of York County to relieve traffic congestion in the east. Airports are transportation nodes, and they must be effectively integrated into existing transportation networks. Consequently, we should be looking to balance and harmonize the anticipated growth with the needs of the surrounding community. That doesn't mean we can or should ignore the desires of nearby landowners but we also can't put our heads in the sand and ignore the anticipated growth of the airport either.

Governments have a duty to both existing landowners and to future landowners. We need to be concerned about preserving the values of current landowner's properties but also mindful of the legitimate concerns of future buyers. That is why there are two distinct aspects of the overlay district. One specifies land-use controls; the other talks about notice to prospective buyers. We should look at both these aspects separately.

At this point, I haven't heard a great deal of specific concerns about the proposed "use restrictions." Proposed prohibitions on landfills, storage of flammable materials and many other limitations are actually seen as benefits by many of the residential owners who have read them. There are some owners of raw land who are concerned about the restrictions on higher density developments. There are also a few people in Zone 2 who have expressed concern to me about the sound insulation requirements if they were to make large additions to their homes.

Still, most people I've talked to, even those who were initially opposed to any new restrictions on their property, found little of concern when they actually read the proposed "restrictions." We need to make sure more residents read the proposed language carefully and give us specific input about what they like and what they don't like. However, I don't believe it will be difficult to find common ground for most nearby landowners on this issue.

The true focus of nearly everyone's concerns is the notice requirement. People are legitimately worried about their property values, and they don't like the proposed text of the current notice. This is exactly why it is important to foster an open dialogue with residents about why this was proposed and how we can accomplish the intended goal without damaging property values.

This notice was never intended to create a "nuisance" zone. If you look at the proposed ordinance and all the documentation offered by the county, that word was never used nor was it ever intended. The notice was intended only to let people know there was an airport nearby and more airplanes may fly over or near these properties than elsewhere in the community. Its purpose was to provide basic information to prospective buyers and not to warn people away.

Why require the notice? Airports are in a unique category regarding noise. In industrial areas, most noise sources are fixed and largely contained on the property. If the noise sources are too far away to see or are blocked by a dense stand of trees and bushes, this makes it much less likely that noise will be a concern. Airports are very different. The predominant source of noise is the airplanes themselves. They obviously leave the property and fly over nearby land that is beyond sight distance of the airport itself. Perhaps more importantly, because significant noise can come from above, it can't always be effectively buffered by trees or berms on the ground.

People also have dramatically different sensitivities to airplane noise. In St. Louis, I had a number of residents tearfully explain that they could never get a full night's sleep near the airport while all their surrounding neighbors swore they did not even notice the airport was there. FAA studies have shown similar results. In this context, what is the right thing to do?

There are already some notice requirements in effect today. Some subdivisions near the airport already have restrictive subdivision covenants and avigation easements that were required by the city as a condition of development. (An avigation easement acknowledges and grants airplanes the right to fly over or near someone's property.) We have been told by some current landowners that they were not advised of these easements at closing even though they are recorded against the property. Others have questioned whether the city should have allowed these developments, even if the avigation easements were uniformly disclosed. There is little point in the county second-guessing these prior city decisions at this point. Our only effective course of action now is to recognize where we are today and try to chart a future course that takes the interests of everyone into account.

The drop-in meetings occurring now are the first step in this process. County Council Chairman Buddy Motz and I have volunteered to meet with homeowners in the nearby subdivisions, and I believe those meetings also can be critically valuable. In situations such as this, it is always challenging to determine exactly where notices should apply and precisely what the notices should say. I also believe the second of these questions may have a material effect on the first. Practically, we are still a long way from any final determination about both issues.

After the meetings end and we compile all the comments we receive, the city and county will start talking about next steps. As we go forward, we will report back to everyone who has contacted us, keeping them up to speed about any new recommendations and making them aware of future public hearings on this issue.

In the meantime, I wanted to bring everyone up to speed about the progress to date and assure you we will continue to keep in touch with nearby residents as we go forward.