Airport sites whittled to three; Contenders for general aviation are areas near Knightdale, Wendell, Zebulon

Wake officials have narrowed their search for the possible home of a $50 million general aviation airport to three sites.

Planners are focusing on land around Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon for the airport, which is envisioned to help industry hunters recruit new businesses and boost county tax revenue.

"This area will continue to grow," said Wake Commissioner Joe Bryan. "This is the last opportunity to add this capacity for our community."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, businesses increasingly are turning to corporate planes to avoid time in security lines. Airports where the expensive planes are based can help fill tax coffers with property tax revenue.

With general aviation traffic surging at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and smaller airports in nearby Franklin, Johnston and Lee counties, local officials began considering building their own airport. Up to 60 planes could be based at the airport, according to consultants hired by the county.

Construction is still years off, but commissioners said they may need to begin acquiring land in the fast-growing area before available sites are paved over with subdivisions.

At least 460 acres are needed for a 6,500-foot runway, hangars and terminal. Consultants initially considered 18 locations, but narrowed sites to minimize environmental problems and people's exposure to noise, said project manager John Roberson. Now under consideration are:

- A tract north of Zebulon, just west of the intersection of U.S. 64 East and U.S. 264 East.

- A tract between Wendell and Zebulon, south of N.C. 97 where the former Buchanan private airport was located.

- A tract north of Knightdale, between Buffaloe and Forestville roads.

A study in March found that the project could qualify for federal funding, which would pay 90 percent of land acquisition and runway costs. The state has funds to cover 50 percent of terminal costs, but building a new airport won't be easy.

Dozens of property owners would have to agree to sell land or it would be condemned, although Wake commissioners Chairman Tony Gurley said the board will be reluctant to force any land sales. Officials said they won't know whether the airport is even feasible until costs and anticipated revenue are determined in September.

But industry recruiters said a new airport would help attract new businesses.

"We're getting more and more inquiries from businesses, when they consider relocating in a community whether the airport has the infrastructure to support corporate uses or their business airplanes," said Rick Barkes, airport development manager for the state Department of Transportation.

And pilots, who now base planes at outlying airports to avoid air traffic at RDU, are salivating at the possibility of having a general aviation airport closer to the Capital City.

"When you fly into RDU, you're looking at delays arriving and departing," said Todd Huvard, a pilot and former publisher of Southern Aviator, a trade publication. "It's more time and more money and it's more hassle."

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