Sommerville to seek action on Lady's Island airport plan

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Sommerville to seek action on Lady's Island airport plan

By CASEY CONLEY
cconley@islandpacket.com
Published Thursday, February 14, 2013   |  587 Words  |  

A controversial blueprint for improving the Beaufort County Airport on Lady's Island, which recommends extending the runway by almost 1,000 feet, might soon get a second look.

Council Chairman Paul Sommerville says he'll seek a vote on the proposal, which outlines nearly $25 million in infrastructure and safety upgrades for the county-owned airport over two decades.

"I want to personally push it to some kind of conclusion," he said. "You can't just have it hanging out there indefinitely. That's worse than voting it up or down."

The plan, released by CDM Smith Consulting in August 2011, has been approved by Beaufort City Council and the county's Airports Board.

The airport, on U.S. 21 about three miles south of downtown Beaufort, doesn't meet all Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

The recommendation to extend the runway by 966 feet -- to a total length of 4,400 feet -- is the most controversial part of the plan. The runway is now too short for the largest plane that uses it, a twin-engine Beech King Air, requiring pilots to carry fewer passengers, less gas or cargo.

Council last debated the plan in November but delayed a final vote after some members objected to the runway extension on environmental and financial grounds. Some Dataw Island residents also have longstanding concerns about airplane noise.

Since then, the plan has been in limbo. It wasn't referred back to a council subcommittee for further review, and it hasn't yet come back before council.

A meeting with the consultants to discuss amendments to the master plan apparently has not happened, either.

"I haven't heard a word about it since (it last came before council)," said County Councilman Rick Caporale, who serves as council liaison to the Airports Board.

Joe Mazzei, chairman of the Airports Board, said he isn't sure what's happening with the plan.

"Council has not approved it yet, but exactly where it is in the process, I can't tell you now," he said.

Sommerville says he understands concerns about the runway extension, but stressed that the master plan is a guide, not a requirement. Creating a new master plan -- the existing one was created in 1979 -- is also a first step toward securing federal funding.

Failing to act on the entire plan, he says, prevents county staff from moving ahead with more pressing safety improvements and possible flight-path changes that could spare some nearby neighborhoods from airplane noise.

"There is stuff we want to do today that is not on the master plan that has nothing to do with lengthening the runway," he said.

Meanwhile, county officials are making progress in selecting a new airports director. The position opened in early November when Paul Andres resigned. County engineering director Rob McFee has been running airport facilities since then.

The position will pay between $53,000 and $70,000 a year. A county spokeswoman wasn't sure how many people applied for the job as of Wednesday.

Mazzei said the review committee is creating a short list of candidates for the position.

"There is no shortage of qualified applicants," he said, adding that it's in "everybody's best interest" to get the position filled quickly.

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