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.
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.
By the fall of 2007, most permits had been issued. Legal challenges were put to rest in 2008 and construction ensued. It is today ahead of schedule and remains within budget.