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Urban brawlUrban brawl

Aviation journalist Mark R. Twombly writes from Southwest Florida.

Aviation journalist Mark R. Twombly writes from Southwest Florida.

After years of relative peace and quiet at our airport, where the enjoyable sound of whirling propellers and whining turbines draws only an occasional raspberry in the form of a noise complaint, it looks like things will be heating up. We're about to have serious neighbor problems.

The issue is one plaguing many airports in fast-growing urban areas — encroaching residential development.

We're pretty much surrounded by commercial activity — shopping centers and strip malls, light industry, retail stores, and car dealers. It's been that way forever, but it's about to change. A 19-acre tract of palmetto-studded land to the northeast of the airport may soon become a 475-unit residential condominium complex called Orchid Island.

The project will include several nine-story towers rising as high as 113 feet above ground level. Here's the rub: The towers will be about a half-mile from the approach end of Runway 23 and the departure end of Runway 5. That's our primary runway.

It doesn't take an urban land-planning degree to foresee the phone call that will be made within hours of the first resident moving in. "Hello, is this the airport? Who was flying that Piper Cub — or maybe it was a Learjet — that just zoomed right over the top of my new apartment? Was it crashing? Jeez, I thought it was going to fly right through my window! Tell that guy to steer clear of this place in the future. Tell him to land at some other airport. Tell all of them to go someplace else. I'm going to call the mayor, the governor, and my congressman!"

It is obvious to us that the condo project would generate noise complaints and pose safety issues, but there is another front-burner issue. It appears that the towers may be high enough to impact the approach path to Runway 23, especially the non-precision GPS instrument approach.

Before applying for building permits, the developers decided to petition the FAA to study the potential impact of the towers on the airport. The FAA has no authority to deny the project, but it could penalize the airport by ordering that the runway threshold be displaced. That would have the effect of restoring a normal glide path, but at the expense of shortening the landing length. If that sounds like convoluted logic, remember that the FAA is here to help.

Ironically, we at the airport were looking for just such a ruling. Displacing the threshold of the primary runway at the area's officially designated general aviation reliever airport, reducing its usable landing length from 6,406 feet to 4,904 feet, would be a very big deal. It would give us a strong argument locally to call for a reduction in the height of the towers. It might even convince the developer to look for a more suitable piece of property.

The FAA study drew 18 public comments. Objections were filed by our airport users' group and airport flying clubs — one sent a letter signed by 40 members. Individual pilots and airplane owners objected, as did the airport authority and the Florida Department of Transportation's Aviation Office.

Despite the comments, the FAA ruled that the towers would "not be a hazard to air navigation." The towers would not impact IFR or VFR arrivals, according to the FAA, and the runway threshold would not have to be displaced.

Officials with Florida's DOT Aviation Office, which licenses airports in the state, say they apply different criteria from the FAA. Based on their analysis, the proposed condo towers would indeed constitute a hazard, therefore requiring threshold displacement. However, the state is standing down to allow the county, which owns the airport, to work things out with the city, which has jurisdiction over the land where the condos will be built. Meanwhile, with that FAA "no hazard" determination in hand, the architect for the project immediately filed for building permits.

I made a few inquiries recently to see where things stand. I called the architect's office and identified myself to the secretary as a pilot and airplane owner at the airport, and a columnist for an aviation publication. "He's in a meeting," she explained, "but I'll see if he wants to talk to you." I didn't expect that he would, given the airport community's opposition to the project.

He took the call, and asked which publication I write for. When I told him, he said proudly, "I'm a 30-year member of AOPA. I fly out of FXE [Fort Lauderdale Executive] and I've been into Page Field many times."

I was speechless. I had met the enemy, and doggone it if he isn't one of us. A nice guy, too, judging from our conversation. I asked him about the irony of a pilot representing a development that could have dire consequences for the airport. He said that he is an advocate of anything aviation, and that as a pilot he'd like to go along with those who oppose any development close to an airport. "But," he added, "reality is different."

He said he has hired a specialist to help design noise-attenuating features into the condos, including thicker windows. And, there will be full disclosure to purchasers about the proximity of the airport. Marketing of units has begun, he said, and a sales trailer may soon be parked on the site. The bulldozers move in as soon as the city issues a permit to clear the property.

"How much will the units sell for?" I asked. "Oh, they start at around $250,000 and go up from there." He mentioned penthouses, which I presume will be the most expensive. And why not? They'll have the best view — of the runway.

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