Opinion

Airport expansion vital to local development

Rock Hill and York County officials made the right call in holding off on a plan to set new rules for development around the Rock Hill/York County Airport until they can explain the changes to residents who have homes near the airport. In the end, however, we believe the proposed expansion of the airport is crucial to local economic development.

City officials were caught by surprise recently when a Planning Commission meeting erupted into a an opposition rally by residents worried about plans to restrict construction around the airport. Some of the residents said they had not been properly informed about the proposed changes.

City and county officials acknowledged last week that some residents might not have been notified about the plans or invited to community workshops sponsored by the county. More than 500 property owners are likely to be affected by restrictions that would, among other things, limit the height of buildings, designate how close they can be to each other and require people buying or selling homes in designated "noise zones" to sign forms acknowledging an airport is nearby.

Local officials hope that the new limits would improve the city's chances of convincing state and federal governments to help pay for a $14 million, 1,000-foot runway expansion. That expansion is needed to accommodate aircraft that can't reach takeoff speeds on the current 5,500-foot strip. The problem is exacerbated in the summer, when air is thinner and planes need more distance to lift off.

We understand the concerns of residents who fear their home values could decline or who don't want more noise from airplane traffic. But they also must acknowledge that deciding to live next to an airport always holds the potential of noise, restrictive zoning and the possibility of plane crashes.

Some residents have lived in homes near the airport for decades. But others have bought homes in nearby developments that have cropped up within the past eight years. More than 230 homes have gone up along the airport's western side in neighborhoods such as Pennington Place and Chelsea Woods.

While some residents say they were surprised by the proposed restrictions, efforts to expand the airport and attract more business travelers have been no secret. In 2002, the airport received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to update its master plan as required by law. The plan, which included expansion of the runway, was approved by the City Council in 2004.

County and city planners announced plans to place additional restrictions on land around the airport in October. At the time, officials noted that development around the airport already is bound by a zoning ordinance created in 1985, but it lacks control and boundaries. The primary purpose of toughening the existing ordinance is to restrict future development so officials won't have to confront more angry neighbors a decade from now.

In addition to the longer runway, planners hope to enlarge the terminal, build more hangars and a coffee shop, and install a rental car agency and a charter service. They hope to attract more corporate jets with the selling point that passengers can land in Rock Hill and get to downtown Charlotte faster than if they landed at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, where traffic backups and security checks cause delays.

Expansion of the airport is a key to business growth in the county. While local officials could have done a better job of controlling nearby residential growth in the past, they have to work with what is there now.

We hope the expansion can occur with minimal inconvenience to neighbors, but the effort must go forward.

IN SUMMARY

Extension of runway and other improvements would be boon to local economy.

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