CUT RUNWAY WITHOUT FAA, RESIDENTS SAY

Frustration over the fight to shorten Witham Field airport's main runway bubbled over Thursday into calls by residents for a revolt against the federal government that is blocking the effort.

"Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead," Sewall's Point resident Jon Chicky said during a meeting of Martin County's airport noise advisory committee. "Let's get a striper out there and stripe that thing off and see what happens. I think they are a paper tiger."

Martin County commissioners voted last year to stop using 460 feet at the northwest end of Witham Field's main runway because of noise, pollution and safety concerns.

Federal Aviation Administration officials in Orlando last year rejected the county's plan to shorten the runway, citing concerns about negative effects on pilots and businesses.

County officials have spent thousands of dollars since then trying to lobby FAA officials in Washington to approve the shortening.

But some members of the noise advisory panel, made up of residents, government officials and airport industry workers, said they had tried to play nice with the FAA for long enough and it was time for the county to just take action on its own.

"I'm tired of taking all this," panel member Bill Frondorf said. "Everybody always bows to the FAA."

County Commissioner Sarah Heard, a panel member who has met with FAA officials, said the county's attorneys have advised commissioners that shortening the runway without FAA approval could be a violation of federal law. The FAA could block the shortening and take legal action against the county for violating the law, she said.

"We can make a rogue decision, and there would be consequences when we do," Heard said.

FAA officials have said several times that they are trying to avoid a conflict with Martin County. An Aug. 13 letter from Rusty Chapman, manager of the FAA's airports division for the Southern region, said the FAA was willing to explore the county's plan as long as the county "is making good-faith progress toward finding an acceptable solution."

Commissioner Lee Weberman, who is not on the panel, said he is also frustrated with the FAA for not allowing the county to shorten the runway but agreed with Heard that the commissioners could not knowingly violate the law.

County commissioners will vote on how to continue the fight to shorten the runway later this year.

Stuart Commissioner Carol Waxler, another panel member, said she was willing to support continuing negotiations with the FAA, but only so long as Heard thought the county had a realistic chance of winning.

"At what point are we going to draw a line in the sand?" she asked. "This keeps spinning and spinning."

- jason_schultz@pbpost.com


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