Panama City's Green Airport

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

It wasn’t until the authority took a serious look at extending the 6,304-foot primary runway into the bay that a genuine discussion emerged about relocation.

Explains Curtis, “They had tried since the late 1970s to fill in anywhere from 20 to 40 acres of the bay bottom to extend the runway. Since that time, the environmental laws have changed significantly.

“When I came to Panama City we started an environmental assessment, working with the FAA, to basically do a project that would extend the runway into the bay. It became very controversial from an environmental perspective, locally and with the regulatory agencies. We struggled with that project until the fall of 1998. At that time, we started conversations with the St. Joe Company, a long-time timber company. They were the largest private landowner in the state of Florida. They own something like 300,000 acres of land here in Bay County.

“We approached them asking for their support for our efforts to extend the runway at the existing airport. They had started to reorganize and were getting into the real estate and development business, versus the traditional tree farming that they had done.

“They wholeheartedly supported our efforts. They felt that their future plans to start developing their properties depended on having a strong, viable airport.”

Along the way, says Curtis, comments from various regulatory agencies during the environmental assessment suggested that a new airport may be a better option.

Concurrently, the St. Joe Company proposed to donate up to 4,000 acres of land for a new airport and agreed to provide land for any mitigation requirements tied to the permits, according to Curtis.

Another key decisionmaking component was neighboring military operations — nearby Air Force and Navy bases and operations heavily restrict local airspace operations, most notably at the existing facility.

At the end of the day, says Curtis, some 75,000 acres of land were allotted to the airport and related mitigation. The airfield itself will only encompass some 1,300 acres, part of a 4,000-acre tract. Explains Curtis, “So, what evolved out of this is, the environmental groups that were fighting the airport about filling in 30-40 acres of bay bottom suddenly became supporters of this concept, because it gave them about 40,000 acres-plus of land that they consider extremely important to the environment.”

To pay for its local share, the authority will sell the existing airport site for up to $56.5 million, with FAA and the State of Florida accounting for the remainder. The airport authority also gets one half of one percent on proceeds of future land sales of the old site, which is considered upscale bayfront property.

The permitting process
Curtis stresses that the decision to go with an EIS under FAA’s direction was critical to the success of the project. Other key components:

  • For land use planning, the airport worked closely with the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which focuses on land use regulations and zoning. “The state legislature had just passed a law providing for five demonstration projects for something called Sector Planning and Permitting, and that’s what this ultimately became. It was a demonstration project for innovative land use planning,” explains Curtis.
  • A “very public process” with numerous public meetings and workshops, particularly environmental. “We essentially went to the environmental community and said that we’ve identified this site and the question we posed was, How would you like to see the remaining areas developed?” says Curtis. “They presented a plan to us which they called the Emerald Arc and their goal was to protect the bay and also the watershed that flows into the bay — the creeks, the tributaries. “Almost half of the total area was set aside for preservation. It provides buffers that are far greater than the regulatory requirement.”
  • The airport used “an innovative process” called Ecosystem Team Permitting, with the lead agency being the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). Instead of working with each agency individually on permits, it was done on a group basis and publicly.
  • The airport entered into an agreement with FDEP to set up a series of public meetings.
  • The federal permit with the Army Corps of Enginers (404 Dredge and Fill permit), dealing with wetland impact, saw a “huge amount of overlap” with state permits and the work that was done with the EIS. “The Corps was the cooperating agency with FAA on the EIS, so when it was time to issue the Army Corps’ record of decision, they were able to get a lot of data from the work that had been done as part of the state and federal permit process,” explains Curtis.

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