Expansion opponents shift focus toward city

A week before his campaign for the York County Council came to an end, candidate Alex Haefele made a pitch to a room full of voters.

"I am against the extension of the runway, and I am against the airport overlay," he told neighbors opposed to plans for a bigger Rock Hill/York County Airport. "I need your votes. Bottom line, I can't help you if you don't elect me."

Haefele won't get the chance to help anyone after his bid to unseat incumbent Buddy Motz in District 6 fell just short in Tuesday's Republican primary. But the reality, as Motz sees it, is that Haefele would've had little power to stop the airport expansion anyway.

"That's a city airport, owned and operated," Motz said last week. "They're the ones who initiated this whole thing, not the county. Even if we wanted to initiate it or stop it, we don't have the authority to do that. Him saying he opposes it, so what?"

As it stands, the airport plans are on track for approval later this summer. Opponents tried to get Haefele elected, hoping he could become their champion and somehow find a way to change course.

With those hopes dashed, the question now is where they go from here.

"Everyone should be excited about what has happened in and around the airport," lead organizer Scott Ball told neighbors last week in an e-mail, which also was sent to The Herald. "We won the Airport, Newport and Mt. Gallant precincts and this is where our voice is coming from. Our voice was heard! We shouted loud and clear that we believe this is wrong, and we will not stop!"

Controversy centers on two parts: Tighter zoning rules through what's known as an airport overlay district, and a 1,000-foot lengthening of the runway to attract more corporate jet traffic.

Neighbors fear more noise and lower property values. They'll return to sending letters and speaking out at public meetings to push for a change in direction, Ball said.

Others appear resigned to a different outcome. At the meeting where Haefele spoke, organizers handed out 5,000 fliers that warned airport growth will "injure our children," cause "health issues" and bring "congestion to our highways."

Earlier in the saga, Carter Langston joined Ball and others in the opposition campaign. The Channing Park homeowner has since distanced himself from the group.

"There are a lot of half-truths and innuendo masquerading as facts," Langston told neighbors in an e-mail, also sent to The Herald. "I encourage you to make your own calls and conduct your own research. From what I found: Our little airport will remain a little airport, with modest growth -- over the next 20 years."

Who has the final say?

A Haefele victory would have boosted the opposition movement, at least in a symbolic way. Ultimately, though, the city has always held the power over any changes at the airport.

"They could come out in opposition to it and I suppose advocate one way or the other," City Manager Carey Smith said of the county. "But I'm not sure they would have the legal authority to veto it. We are the designated authority, which gives us quite a bit of responsibility."

Haefele sees it differently. He believes the pursuit of a longer runway would be crippled without the county's cooperation in creating an airport overlay district, or AOD.

"My belief is that the AOD may not be a requirement of lengthening the runway, but as a practical matter, their application to the FAA would probably not be competitive without (it)," Haefele said. "And the AOD would have to encompass more than just the portion in the city limits."

Regardless of the chain of command, any upgrades will take years to materialize. At a time of tight budgets and growing demands in Washington, Motz believes it will take close to a decade for any runway money to get here.