Mar. 5--ABINGDON, Va. -- After years of debate over the planned expansion of Virginia Highlands Airport, just one opponent of the project turned up Wednesday for the last public hearing on the project required for regulatory approval.
"This amounts to very little protection from disruption by noise," said Stephen C. Jett, a retired professor who lives in Abingdon. "We may anticipate negative impacts on residential life, on churches, cemeteries, libraries and schools, on tourism-related businesses and on physical and mental health."
Airport Manager Mickey Hines said the lack of comment Wednesday means most people view the expansion as a positive thing.
"We'll have a longer, safer runway for landing and takeoff," Hines said. "We'll be able to accommodate some larger corporate aircraft that are unable to use it largely because of insurance regulations ... and I think it will help our industrial recruiting base."
The project was introduced as a concept in 1996, and a consultant was hired in 2001. A plan was drawn up in 2003, and the environmental assessment, now drawing to a close, began in 2005. Over the years, several meetings were held for public information and comment, and a number of residents complained, mostly about the potential for noise over historic Abingdon.
A public comment period on the draft environmental assessment comes to a close in mid-April before final documents will be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. That approval -- a finding of no significant impact -- is expected later this year, said Colleen Agnstadt, project manager for Delta Airport Consultants.
Construction is scheduled to begin as early as 2013.
The main feature of the project -- at a projected cost of $30 million -- is to lengthen the airport runway to 5,500 feet. The current length is 4,471 feet. Another $10 million will be used for other improvements, said Roy Lewis, vice president and director of planning for the company.
Lewis said 98 percent of the funding will be state and federal money derived from aviation-related user fees -- not taxpayer dollars.
"One might see that as a kind of opportunity for the airport authority and the community to leverage 2 percent into the development of what some would see as a key economic development tool," Lewis said. "If you could get something that costs a dollar for two pennies, wouldn't you do it?"
Lewis said the next step in the process will be acquiring 49 acres of unimproved land to the west of the airport and an easement on 23 more acres. Then will come the design phase.
"It's all up to money then," Lewis said.
In addition to lengthening the runway and adding a parallel taxiway, the project will include a new hangar and relocation of Providence Road.
Lewis said the longer runway might actually reduce airport noise because it will give planes more space to land and they won't have to decelerate so quickly.
Washington County Administrator Mark Reeter said the airport project is about meeting current safety regulations.
"At the heart of it ... the expansion is necessary to keep the airport alive," Reeter said. "It's being driven by regulatory changes that require longer runways for the kind of aircraft that the airport has always been supplying service to."
Reeter said he does not expect a significant increase in air traffic -- but the expansion will provide an option for larger planes.
"We're certainly eager to see the project move forward," Reeter said.
Hines said he, too, is eager to see construction begin. No significant airport closures are anticipated during construction, he said, and the new runway will likely open in 2016.
"In '96 it was a 20-year plan, so we're on schedule, so to speak," Hines said. "The wheels turn so slowly through the state and federal bureaucracy, but I think that's just part of it."
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