PROP PILOT PRESSES TO RENT LAND AT WITHAM

Another fight is brewing at Martin County's airport, but this version involves propeller planes and trees instead of jets and runways.

Bob Blackford, who founded a group of propeller-plane pilots called Witham Aero Club in the 1990s and built hangars for them, wants to rent land on the north side of Witham Field for another group of propeller-plane pilots.

Blackford said Martin County, which owns the airport, keeps stalling him and is not following federal laws.

"These pilots have been stonewalled by Martin County for almost four years. Please help us," Blackford wrote in an Oct. 29 complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration asking the agency to make the county rent him that land.

Blackford wants to lease about 8 to 10 acres along Monterey Road just south of the YMCA that is covered mostly by trees.

County Commissioner Sarah Heard and airport activists such as Lynne Pine want the trees to remain to help shield the homes north of airport from the noise and pollution of jets.

"There really should be a buffer between the airport and the community," said Pine, who lived north of the airport for decades. "It's a natural filter for all the poisons that are airborne out there."

The Witham Aero Club has hangars on about 3 acres. Blackford said he has been asking airport officials for years to rent him more property because the club has room for just 44 planes and has a waiting list of 80 pilots.

Pilots of small planes cannot get hangar space at Witham Field and must either tie down their planes outside or go to other airports, said Marshal "Bud" Wilcox, Witham Aero Club co-manager and former county commissioner.

"They're all around looking for a home for the planes and we don't have it to give to them," Wilcox said.

Blackford said county officials keep giving him reasons preventing them from renting the land, one being that they didn't want to amend Witham Aero Club's lease.

As a result, he formed an identical group, the Martin Aero Club, to rent the Monterey Road land under a new lease.

Blackford said the county told him last year that he had to wait until after the county created an airport land-use plan. In October, commissioners postponed approving that plan until at least February.

At that hearing, an attorney for the county, Peter Kirsch, told commissioners that, without a land-use plan, FAA rules require the county to rent available land to any airport-related business that makes a formal request.

"I heard all this from Kirsch and I went home that night and typed up a formal request," Blackford said.

Now that Blackford has made the request, he feels federal law requires the county to rent him the land.

FAA officials said they are looking into Blackford's complaint.

Airport Director Mike Moon said he is not stonewalling Blackford. After commissioners approve the land-use plan, Moon said, the county will examine Blackford's request and respond.

The proposed plan would allow the hangars on that land, Moon said.

In Moon's response to the FAA inquiry, he said there may be other locations on the airport that would be better suited for the hangars.

Dave Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority group, frequently criticizes Moon over jet traffic at the airport, which increased after the main runway was lengthened.

But he agrees with Moon that there has to be a better place for the hangars.

"We shouldn't go willy-nilly and start tearing down trees," Shore said. "I think there's plenty of other space available on the airport for Bob Blackford."

Blackford said he is willing to leave a 100-foot buffer zone of trees and he doesn't think there is other land that fits the pilots' needs.

~ jason_schultz@pbpost.com


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