Stuart, FL airport remains embattled

An aircraft service center looking to expand its operation at Witham Field is meeting a wall of resistance from airport critics who say the county is giving it and other businesses deals that are far too sweet.

They say those businesses are paying rent far below the going rate for other tenants at the airport, including a nonprofit agency and the Martin County Sheriff's Office.

But airport businesses and the director of the airport said the critics are making an unfair comparison.

"It is definitely a fair lease for the county," said Dan Capen, president of the Stuart Jet Center, which will ask commissioners on Oct. 16 for permission to add 87,000-square-feet of hangars and offices to its Witham Field operation.

The business rents about 2.2 million square feet of land for about 7 cents per square foot per year. Another airport-related business, Galaxy Aviation, rents about 815,000 square feet of land for 7 cents per square foot per year.

Critics, who have vowed to fight Stuart Jet Center's expansion plan, say those leases are way too low.

"Seven cents is just ridiculous," said Jensen Beach activist Tony Parkinson. "There's something dreadfully wrong with all of this."

The sheriff's office pays about $5 per square foot annually to rent a 24,000-square-foot building for its records and human resources departments. The Council on Aging of Martin County pays about $9.50 per square foot for its 6,400- square-foot headquarters of the Community Coach bus transit system.

Dave Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority group that opposes the expansion of the airport, called the business leases "sweetheart deals" that are cheating the taxpayers who own the airport.

"Here's an agency (Council on Aging) that helps our community and they are paying $9.50 when Stuart Jet and Galaxy are paying seven cents?" Shore said incredulously. "I mean come on.

"Our intent is to force Martin County to renegotiate the leases," Shore said. "I have spent the last week being outraged. The more I get involved in this issue, the angrier I get."

Difficult comparisons

Martin County Commissioner Lee Weberman said the county pays about $19 per square foot for the offices it rents around the county, such as the satellite offices for Tax Collector Larry O'Steen. He also criticized the leases for airport businesses and said he will ask officials to either look into whether they can be renegotiated.

"This almost looks like a subsidy," Weberman said. "We shouldn't be entering into these one-sided deals."

Capen said the critics are unfairly comparing two different kinds of leases. The sheriff's office and Council on Aging are renting already constructed buildings ready to be used on much smaller plots of land.

The Stuart Jet Center rented nearly 51 acres of land and had to spend about $11 million to build all of the roads, water and sewer lines and buildings on the property. Even though the businesses paid to construct all the buildings, the county gets ownership of them for free as part of the lease, Capen said.

"They're not comparing apples to apples," Capen said. "That's an $11 million investment that reverts to the county."

The businesses make other payments in addition to their rents, said Airport Director Mike Moon. Stuart Jet Center and Galaxy Aviation pay the county 8 cents for every gallon of fuel they sell to pilots. Vought Aircraft Industries pays the county half of the revenue it gets from subleasing its property.

Because of the large acreages rented and the additional payments, the three airport-related businesses pay far more per year than the Council on Aging, the Sheriff's Office, or the Witham Aero Club, a private club of recreational pilots that rents space for hangars. Vought will make the largest payment this year, about $517,000, according to county records, and the Stuart Jet Center will pay about $305,000.

The Council on Aging pays about $61,000 for its building.

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