Saying any runway changes at Palm Beach International Airport would only increase noise and decrease home values, neighborhood leaders said Wednesday the best plan would be to shift air traffic elsewhere - perhaps St. Lucie County.
Federal aviation officials at a focus group meeting presented three expansion plans to shorten airport delays but immediately ran into opposition from the airport's neighbors.
Two of the plans would alleviate congestion at PBIA and cut delays to about two minutes, according to projections from the Federal Aviation Administration. The third option would be to do nothing.
But community leaders representing the neighborhoods around the airport questioned the motives of the plans, saying the expansion accommodates increased air traffic from counties farther north and the growth of private aviation. They favor plans that decrease the traffic going through PBIA - pushing private planes to other airports or constructing a new airport in St. Lucie County.
"It's like shoving a size 5 foot into a size 10 shoe," said Al Vazquez, president of the Parker Ridge Neighborhood Association and a private pilot. "It is sort of sad to see the airport where I learned how to fly become a monster."
The FAA considered about two dozen plans before narrowing it down to three for further consideration, said Allan Nagy, project manager for the consulting firm helping the federal agency with its study. Among the plans rejected by the FAA were proposals to build a new airport north of Palm Beach International and to relocate some of the air traffic to other airports.
"We took a look at what was feasible and practical," Nagy said. "Now we're presenting our findings for public feedback."
The expansion plan proposed by airport officials would relocate the southernmost runway 100 feet south, extending it to 8,000 feet, and shorten the intersecting runway to 4,000 feet. This plan, which did not carry a price tag, would require eight off-airport commercial properties and one residential property to be relocated.
The alternative plan created by the FAA, which would cost $629 million, would construct a new 8,000-foot runway 800 feet north of the existing 10,000-foot runway and eliminate the intersecting runway. Eleven gates would need to be relocated and two new concourses built.
"There is a slight difference between the plans in the way the noise shifts," Nagy said.
In both plans, the parallel runways are too close for planes to take off and land simultaneously. However, by using one for take-offs and the other for landings they will cut down wait time, according to the FAA.
Airport officials declined to comment on the proposals until an environmental impact study is completed, which would not be until 2009.
Debate Wednesday night focused on whether the expansion plans disproportionately benefit the private pilots who use the airport. Sixty-five percent of the aircraft that come into PBIA are private planes. There is no landing fee for these planes, which make up about 6 percent of airport revenues.
"The little people are paying every time they buy a plane ticket," said Jose I. Rodriguez, who lives in Vedado, a neighborhood just north of Southern Boulevard that's affected by the airplane traffic.
Others worried about the impact of expansion.
"The people who are being harmed by this plan are the people of my neighborhood - the ones who don't have the wealth," said Tom Conboy, president of the Poinciana Park homeowners association. "It will decrease the value of these homes $5,000 to $10,000."
A public workshop to discuss the expansion plans is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport, 105 Australian Ave.
After the public provides feedback on the plans, the detailed environmental impact study will be done, looking at the social and economic effects of the expansion plans. Once that is complete, the FAA will present its recommendation to the Palm Beach County Commission, which can approve or deny the measure.
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