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County settles down runway uproar

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

It was about as close as you can get to a kumbaya moment when it comes to the Apalachicola Regional Airport.

At last week’s Jan. 5 meeting, county commissioners unanimously agreed to not abandon a third runway that the state is no longer interested in funding, and to reconstitute an airport advisory board.

Smokey Parrish
Bert Boldt

Commissioner Smokey Parrish, in whose district the airport lies, did not comment on the push by Commissioner Bert Boldt to encourage the reviving of the citizen advisory board. In the past Parrish has pushed back on the board, or been noncommittal about having one at all, for what he sees as overreach by aviation enthusiasts without regard for concerns found in the neighborhood that abuts the airport.

This time, he said nothing, but along with his colleagues, had questions about how to proceed with handling the shutting down of a third runway.

The meeting opened with a strong appeal by three airport backers to not allow the runway to be closed.

Steve Kirschenbaum, a former member of the airport advisory board, accused the county of abandoning its responsibility to the airport.

“The county used to embrace the airport, and now that’s stopped,” he said. “They stopped putting any money in the forest clear zones and it’s now a forest. The county would not cut back trees.

“It’s not a one runway issue; it’s an airport issue,” he said, citing other alleged neglects, culminating in Airport Manager Jason Puckett having filed paperwork to remove the instrument approach from runway #1836, and turning it into a utility area.

“This is the first step towards disabling our airport,” Kirschenbaum said. “We need #1836 closure out of the master plan, and we need the road department to assist with grants.

“This airport is a $300 million county asset. Why is this administration going to take action to destroy it?” he asked.

With finances looming in the later presentation by John Collins and Lee Lewis, engineers with Avcon, the airport consulting firm, Kirschenbaum suggested there were available airport funds to get work started, and the airport’s fixed base operator Centric Aviation, could be made responsible for weed and grass control.

Ted Mosteller, who has a great deal of experience over the past three decades with all aspects of the airport, as a user and an active volunteer, said the county needs to be mindful of what they have.

“We are very fortunate and proud of our airport,” he said. “We’re the envy of surrounding counties, they’re salivating, wishing they had such a valuable asset.

“With the waning of the seafood industry, tourism is our future,” he said.

He said the proposed master plan included misleading photos that showed the runway, which dates back to 1933 when the military began using the site for a gunnery school, in poor condition.

Runway #1836 is the vertical runway, running north and south, at right.

He said the runway needs less maintenance than the other two, and with general, routine maintenance, would be good for several more years.

Mosteller said the runway is used often, due to prevailing winds, especially by small general aviation aircraft, “the tail dragger variety.”

He went on to raise a general question about the dynamic among local volunteers, county government, Centric, and the Florida Department of Transportation, which administers federal dollars.

“No one can say who is overseeing the airport for the county interest,” Mosteller said.

Bruce Graham, a local pilot who voiced support for preserving the runway, said his fellow pilots would be willing to provide aerial spotting of improper and perhaps unlawful duck hunting in the area, as well as offering support for search and rescue operations.

“The runway’s not as bad as people want them to be, it’s classified by the FAA as fair,” he said. “In the latest FDOT analysis in June, the biggest problem is trees.

“You have many years of use on those runways,” Graham said, noted that about $7 million in grants could be flowing into the airport.

Avcon cites pros and cons of closure

In his report to the commission, over Zoom, Avcon’s Collins outlined components of the 20-year master plan, which the FAA and FDOT require to be updated every five years. In the last update done in 2006, all three runways were recommended for rehabilitation as necessary.

He said the county has three runways, the primary one #1432, a crossroad one, #624, and a third runway, #1836, which lacks runway edge lighting, to enable aircraft to land in poorer weather, and no approaches.

“We look at wind coverage and operational capacity of the airport,” Collins said, noting the first two runways meet all FAA requirements for wind coverage and capacity.

“Because of that they will fund improvements to these two, but they won’t fund to 1836 because they don’t think the further investment warrants that investment,” he said, “They will not commit any funding for 1836. We’d be happy to go with you and sit down with FDOT and make a case for funding 1836 if that’s something you want.

“They were very firm about saying they want the county to focus energy on the two other runways instead,” he said.

Collins said the $7 million allocated by FAA and FDOT over the next five years will go towards pavement rehab, maintaining the apron and proper draining, and hangar improvements. The engineer has also estimated that it would take up to that much money to properly maintain and rehab 1836, although the Friends of the Airport (FARA), in celebrating the county’s decision, called it “a fictitious number to put a scare into the commissioners.”

As he has done faithfully for three decades, the county’s liaison with the airport, former County Planner Alan Pierce, who is nearing full retirement from his stepped-down role, offered a succinct summation of the significance of the issue, as outlined in Avcon’s detailed presentation.

“FAA and FDOT have made a policy change, we don’t necessarily have a dog in the fight,” he said. “If we make no investment in 1836 it would deteriorate until it became no longer safe and become a liability. The runway is in great shape today, we’ve been out there quite a bit and the concrete slab is in very good shape for their age.”

He said as the concrete joints begin to break down, plants and water infiltrate, and the mile-long runways crac

Pierce estimated that there are 97 miles of concrete joints at the airport, that have to be maintained, and that it takes about 10 to 15 years before they deteriorate.

He said one option would be invest no more money in 1836, with a second option for county to commit to funding any rehab over the long term, over the next 20 years, with another master plan update in the next five years to determine whether to spend money on it,

“We need to show a picture of what the airport will look like 20 years from now,” Pierce said. “Is runway 1836 active or open 20 years from now?”

He said he thought the estimates of $5 million to $7 million in costs to maintain and operate 1836 “might be on the high end.” In 2013, it cost a half-million to do a concrete rehab joint replacement.

Pierce said there are trees “that need to be mitigated as part of keeping road surfaces clear” to the north. “It could be more extensive than just joints.”

The runway, if abandoned would be converted to a 35-foot taxiway that would also provide airside access to the east side of airport. “We are running out of landside access on the east and west apron, for future industrial development on the east side of the airport.”

He said the trees in question have been identified as being on private property caught Parrish’s attention.

“We see the trees but we really don’t know exactly where those trees are,” Pierce said. “They are above the approach surface, and FDOT said it’s an item that needs to be addressed.”

\Parrish outlines economic development challenges

The tree issue caught Parrish’s attention.

“He’s not going to want you cutting his trees, that’s private property,” he said. “This is a unique situation. We have in a small community with a nice airport. We can’t pick this airport up and move it out away from everybody.”

The main argument Parrish made, and which carried the day, was that the county should make no guarantees of funding, and look for it. The commissioner agreed to a wording change in the master plan that would ensure the county did not go on record of seeking closure of 1836.

“There may be additional revenue, but I don’t want to commit the county to say we will do this,” he said. “We’ll look at it but not to lock the county in. I don’t want to stick my neck out there to be chopped off.

“I don’t want to leave us open for criticism we didn’t do what we said we were going to do,” Parrish said. “We will look at alternative sources. I don’t see us breaking the county, and I don’t want to be locked into anything.

“I’m not saying I want to close the runway,” he said.

Parrish also defended the county’s shepherding of the airport from the days when it was far less trafficked.

“It went dormant for a while and then we brought it back,” he said. “With the community working hand in hand. We’d like to see economic development out there.”

But, with no four-lane highway, and a nearness to the coast and possible frequent bad weather, “it’s hard to entice people to come here and bring that economic development to you. And having to train a workforce is a whole other issue,” Parrish said. “There’s a host of issues when you’re talking about economic development. But we’ve no given up.”

Chairman Ricky Jones noted the difference, in costs between maintenance and capital improvements, and the possible tie-in of the airport to a freight logistics plan for the entire Big Bend area.

Boldt pushed successfully in his motion to include a request that County Coordinator Michael Morón work to develop a plan for reconstituting the airport advisory board.

“The airport is a valuable resource, an asset as valuable as our hospital is,” he said. “Our big asset is tourists, but we do need a second resource relative to economic viability. We need formal input by a citizen advisory group.

“I think it’s very important (a board) help us find additional funding to help maintain the airport,” he said.