Panama City's Green Airport

Extensive up front coordination, outreach led to environmentally compatible complex.

PANAMA CITY, FL — This region of Northwest Florida is known as the Emerald Coast, with its scenic beaches and Gulf Coast waters. The region has blossomed into a tourist mecca over the past two decades while also attracting new residents, putting significant strains on the existing 700-acre airport that rests on the bay adjacent to the city. The answer: build a new airport north of the city; sell the old one and use the proceeds for financing; and, involve local environmental groups from the outset to ensure that the end result is an airport construction project that provides a net environmental benefit. The new Panama City-Bay County International Airport, set to open in mid-2010, is today well on its way to becoming a reality as pavement is being poured and construction begins on the new terminal. Along the way, the story has become one that may serve as an environmental template for others.

The airport is owned by the Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District. Randall ‘Randy’ S. Curtis, A.A.E., who took over as executive director in 1995, relates that when the decision to build a new facility was made the authority’s mandate was, “First of all, do it right.”

Up front, that meant overcoming environmental concerns in a region dominated by wetlands and pine forests. Explains Curtis, “With our stormwater system here there’s a regulatory requirement regarding the quality of water once it’s treated and leaves the airport. We elected to treat it to a level that’s about 50 percent higher than what’s required.”

The authority also decided to build the new terminal to U.S. Green Building Council LEED standards — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

“Another thing we elected to do was with the mitigation and permitting for the airport — the goal has been to permit as much as possible of the 4,000 acres as we can legally do. We’re only impacting 1,300 acres; the mitigation area is being done to mitigate the entire 4,000 acre site,” says Curtis.

“There are wetland areas elsewhere that we’re mitigating for today that we may not impact until ten, 20 years in the future.”

As with any such project, it required dealing with state and federal permitting agencies, and officials took the initiative at all levels to coordinate their efforts, most notably by having the Federal Aviation Administration oversee an environmental impact statement study as opposed to the airport merely conducting an environmental assessment, according to Curtis.

“The goal was to create a project that would have net environmental benefits, and that’s where we really got into the stormwater being treated to a higher standard; doing the mitigation up front; and LEED was another component,” he explains. “Once we got into the legal challenges, all these efforts really paid off when the judges looked at the efforts we were making. It wasn’t just doing whatever we could to get by; it was a matter of trying to be responsible and to really do it right.”

One effort leads to another
Curtis, 57, has been in airport management since 1975, having worked at airports in Nashville, Lexington, and Sioux City, IA, where he was director in 1989 when the infamous crash of United 232 occurred at the airfield when an engine mishap blew out the airplane’s hydraulics. Yet, he says, developing a greenfield site has been a new challenge.

“It’s been a very unique opportunity. Typically the problems you deal with involve an existing facility and how to work around existing facilities. All of a sudden somebody hands you a clean sheet of paper with more than ample land and to do it right, it’s truly an opportunity. There have been a lot of headaches and sleepless nights, but I couldn’t think of a better way for an airport management career to end.”

Through the years, he relates, there had from time to time been some minor discussion about possibly building a new airport as the city grew towards the existing facility.

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