Hilton Head Planning Commission removes roadblock to runway extension

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Dec. 16--Once a bargaining chip, now a roadblock, a zoning change that prevents extending the county-owned island airport runway is the target of Town of Hilton Head Island officials.

The town's planning commission voted 6-1 Wednesday to amend a town ordinance to increase the allowable length of the runway to 5,000 feet. Jack Docherty was absent. Charles Young recused himself.

Young is a deacon at St. James Baptist Church, home to a native-island congregation that worships under the airport's flight path. The church opposes any airport expansion or runway extension.

Commissioner Terence Ennis voted against the motion, stating the runway area to be lengthened should be better defined in the ordinance.

Three years ago, Town Council passed a zoning change that prevents the Hilton Head Island Airport from extending the runway beyond the current 4,300 feet without town approval.

"The resolution at that time was made only because we had no say what could happen at the airport and (that) was our way of having a seat at the table for any future work at the airport," said Ward 6 Town Councilman Ken Heitzke.

Wednesday's vote allows a master plan adopted by the Beaufort County and town councils Oct. 27 to be put into effect. The plan guides development at the airport for the next 20 years and includes a two-phased extension of the runway to 5,400 feet.

The first phase would extend the runway 700 feet. A second phase would add 400 feet and require rerouting Beach City Road. Both phases require buying land at the ends of the runway.

The extension is expected to cost about $20 million, with as much as 95 percent coming from federal funds. The county and state would split the rest.

Studies from consultants hired by the county and town show the current runway and tree obstructions force airlines to fly planes at less than capacity, making routes less profitable and, thus, less likely to continue. Extension would enhance safety and allow commercial airlines to fly more passengers and larger planes, which the current runway cannot accommodate. Lengthening the runway also would benefit general aviation traffic, airport and county officials say.

Church members and neighboring residents, however, say runway extension -- and the noise it would entail -- would encroach too much on the church and lower the quality of life and real estate values of surrounding property.

They also argue the runway already serves the island's needs and demand for commercial air service. They say safety issues can be addressed by trimming trees -- not removing them -- to comply with federal regulations.

"I think we are being careless and cavalier about expansion of the airport," Perry White, a deacon at the 124-year-old church, said during the meeting.

The issue goes to Town Council for final consideration.

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