Faced with an almost certain denial of its request to expand hangars, a Witham Field aircraft business agreed to put off for six months plans to expand its operations.
Martin County commissioners voted 3-2 to delay a vote on the Stuart Jet Center's request until May to expand its hangars and offices by 87,000 square feet at the county-owned airport.
The business agreed to the delay after several commissioners said they opposed the expansion and Commissioner Lee Weberman gave it a choice between a delay and outright denial. Weberman said he opposed the proposal because the increased hangar space would increase jet traffic, creating more safety concerns at the busy county airport.
"This is a decision that affects the health, safety and welfare or county residents," Weberman said.
Residents have complained that jet traffic is creating a safety hazard in the neighborhoods around the airport and increasing traffic will worsen the problem.
"We should have an airport that serves the local community," said Bill Shanley, one of several residents who showed up to oppose the expansion. "We shouldn't have an airport that is a center for businesses that serve the region."
Jet Center President Dan Capen has said the plan will not increase jet traffic. He said the hangars will house planes that are already at the airport and are being stored on an outside apron. Commissioner Susan Valliere said she did not believe that.
"If you're taking airplanes off the apron and putting them in a hangar it leaves the apron free," Valliere said. "It's common sense."
Terry McCarthy, an attorney for the jet center, said the county signed a lease with his client that runs until 2032. He threatened to sue if commissioners denied the expansion plan.
"My client has spent millions of dollars relying upon that contractual arrangement," McCarthy said.
Supporters of the expansion, like Jensen Beach Chamber of Commerce Director Ron Rose, said the county had to live up to its lease.
"If you wanted to build a garage to put your car in you'd be allowed to do that," Rose said. "The Stuart Jet Center simply wants to build garages for its current customers. Not approving this adds to Martin County's growing anti-business reputation."
Weberman said he was not anti-business and would not be scared by threats of lawsuits. "Please don't think I'm going to be bullied or marshmallowed. It's not going to happen," he said.
Commissioner Doug Smith voted against the delay, saying the county and the jet center could not solve their issues in the next six months and would end up having the same fight on May 8.
"We're putting business in jeopardy," Smith said. "We're sending a terrible message here."
Valliere voted against the delay, saying she would never vote to expand the hangars.
Dave Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority activist group that opposes the expansion, said he is not optimistic that the proposal will be any better the next time.
"I think we're going to be back here in six months and they'll deny it."
Stuart, FL airport remains embattled
The county has $7 million in FAA and state grants and it has applied for another $5 million grant, said Airport Director Mike Moon.
Vernace told the county during that August meeting that he didn't think the FAA would support shortening the runway because it might cause airport businesses to lose revenue through lower fuel sales.
FAA won't go along with county's request to deactivate portion of runway.