SANFORD -- Orlando Sanford International Airport, hoping to overcome a recent softening in passenger traffic, is moving ahead with plans for growth that would leave a lasting impact on everything from roads to businesses to the environment.
The airport recently expanded an international ramp, a precursor to eventual expansion of its terminal. It will soon open an 830-space parking garage, and the county plans to close two roads so the airport can begin extending its southernmost runway.
That is just the beginning of an ambitious master plan that could lead to simultaneous landings of two commercial aircraft and as many as 5 million passengers annually by 2020, or more than three times the traffic last year.
The plan also calls for eventually purchasing hundreds of acres, boosting the airport's total footprint in east Sanford to more than 3,000 acres. Most property would be between its current border and the new Lake Mary Boulevard extension, a road expected to spur intense development around the airport.
On the radar in the immediate future is development of 360,000 square feet of commercial space, including a new 27,000-square-foot facility for Delta Connection Academy and two hotels.
The airport is "one of the more important economic engines the county will have over the foreseeable future," Seminole County economic-development director Bill McDermott said. "No doubt about it."
But airport expansions rarely come without conflict, and Orlando Sanford has had its share. Environmentalists and some residents were recently outraged at the decision to destroy three bald eagles nests the airport said presented a hazard to planes because of eagles flying near runways. The airport is monitoring a fourth nest, and Audubon of Florida officials fear other habitats could be destroyed as things get busier.
Since the first nest was brought down and an eaglet relocated, the airport has developed a plan that would include cutting down any tree on its property considered a possible nesting or perching site. That could mean the removal of hundreds of pine trees, airport President Larry Dale acknowledged.
"Sanford has such a large eagle population, and any time new development occurs, there is a concern that the eagles are going to suffer," said Lynda White, in charge of the EagleWatch program at the Audubon of Florida's Center for Birds of Prey.
Getting along with its human neighbors also has been a challenge. Neighbors have complained about noise from jets, though the number of complaints has decreased as the airport has taken noise-reduction measures and bought homes in areas considered too loud.
Beverly Baird Boothe, a longtime resident southwest of the airport near Silver Lake, said she tried unsuccessfully a few years ago and again earlier this year to get airport officials to pay for soundproofing homes. She questions whether the airport is worth the headaches.
"I think it gets to a point where citizens have to say, what is the value to the city?" she said.
Airport officials say that while growth could bring more noise, most of that would be to the east, where runways are being extended and where residential development is sparse.
Change a constant
Orlando Sanford looks much different than it did in the early 1990s, when the facility was a quiet general-aviation airport. It began encouraging British charter flights through construction of an international terminal and financial deals with foreign carriers.
Then it focused on low-cost domestic carriers, though it has struggled with airlines later cutting back service or going out of business. The loss of some flights, combined with a slump in international travel, led to passenger declines in 2005 and 2006.
But airport officials are counting on a turnaround this year with predictions of 2 million passengers. Monthly passenger counts have risen significantly since November compared with the same months a year ago.
Domestic travel is up because of a steady flow of new flights by Allegiant Air, a Las Vegas-based airline that focuses on leisure travelers. The airline isn't slowing down, with four more destinations planned by June 1, for a total of 23, most going to the Midwest and East.
Airline consultant Stuart Klaskin calls Allegiant "one of the best things that happened to Orlando Sanford," but he doesn't expect big-name airlines to follow anytime soon.
Central Florida, he said, hasn't reached saturation like South Florida, which is so packed with residents that two airports in close proximity -- Miami's and Fort Lauderdale's -- can each attract bigger airlines.
In Orlando, Klaskin said, "the urban sprawl, if you will, is not yet so awful that organically a second airport like that is necessary."
Still, Sanford's airport is one of the busiest general-aviation airports in the country, with more than 300,000 takeoffs and landings a year, fueled in large part by the flight-training school. And that is what's driving expansion of the southernmost runway.
Although the lengthening and an eventual widening would open up a second runway to handle commercial jets, meaning two jets could land at one time, airport officials said the goal is to provide relief to the main runway by shifting over more general-aviation aircraft.
The extended runway would slice in half Beardall Avenue and mean the fencing off of Cameron Avenue so road traffic wouldn't interfere with signals for planes. Part of a new instrument landing system for the runway would be east of the street.
George Wilson, who lives between the airport and Lake Mary Boulevard, says growth so far has been acceptable. But, he said, "Sometimes, I can envision a Hilton being here on our lot."
Indeed, the two hotels planned on airport property, including a Best Western, would be just down the street. There also will be an 84 Lumber store.
"In the 11 years we've been here, it's grown up a lot," Wilson said.