ST. MARYS, Fla. - After more than five years of debate, the St. Marys City Council voted Monday night to abandon plans to relocate the St. Marys Airport.
The motion to scrap plans to close the airport and move operations to a proposed site 18 miles away near Woodbine was proposed by Councilman Gary Blount, who said the issue has been discussed long enough.
"I think St. Marys has gone above and beyond the call of duty," he said. "I see no reason to get rid of what I believe is a valuable asset."
The city began debating the issue after the Federal Aviation Administration closed the airport following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Officials at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, about 2 miles from the airport, expressed concerns about the lack of response time security forces would have if a terrorist attack originated from the airport.
The airport reopened about two months later, after city officials argued that the facility is vital to the region's economy. They also noted that Kings Bay was vulnerable to a possible attack by air, regardless of where an airplane departed.
Blount's motion to abandon relocation plans and cancel all ongoing negotiations was seconded by Larry Johnson. The motion was approved 3-1, with Blount, Johnson and L.J. Williams voting to keep the airport at the existing site. Jerry Lockhart abstained from voting, saying he didn't have enough information to make a decision. Bill Deloughy was out of town on vacation and could not attend the meeting.
Gull Weaver cast the lone opposing vote, saying it is premature to vote on the issue until an ongoing airport relocation study by the FAA is completed in 60 to 90 days. A $260,000 federal grant funded the study.
"It's already paid for," Weaver said of the study. "This [study] is what we voted on, and I don't think it's fair for the city to proceed. It only takes 90 days to postpone this vote."
Blount, however, argued the city can study alternative sites "to the next millennium" and it wouldn't change his opinion.
"I say this money has already been wasted," he said. "I am not willing to give up a valuable asset."
Ed Buczek, a spokesman with the public affairs office at Kings Bay, said he wasn't surprised about the decision.
"The vote was expected," he said. "We are a little disappointed. The council would have been better informed if they would have waited for the facts."
In 2003, city officials approved a resolution to relocate the airport to address security concerns voiced by the Navy, under the condition the city would not have to pay for the project.
In May 2005, the FAA sent a letter to the city telling elected officials they should begin planning to sell the airport before the completion of a new facility. The money from the sale would have to be used to pay for the new airport, the FAA said.
Some council members said they were never told about the letter, which was sent to former Mayor Deborah Hase, and didn't know about the FAA's mandate until a year ago.
Williams and Mayor Rowland Eskridge said they were among those who were never told about the letter until 10 months after it was sent to the city.
Prior to Monday night's vote, audience members expressed both support and opposition to moving the facility.
St. Marys resident Walt Natzic urged council members to wait for the results of the FAA's relocation study.
"I think it's very important we're not premature and move ahead in the middle of the stream," he said.
Dick Russell, chairman of the St. Marys Airport Authority, however, said a number of "myths, falsehoods and dreams" have been spread during the long debate about the airport.
"Our present airport is a valuable community asset," he said. "If the airport goes, it will be the Woodbine Airport, and we'll never get it back."
People would be just as likely to land at Jacksonville International Airport as in Woodbine, Russell said.
"Our airport is big enough to handle the city's needs," he said.
Russell said the airport has attracted new businesses, even with the uncertain future since the controversy began. And other new businesses interested in opening at the airport are waiting for the issue to be resolved before making a commitment.
"They can't do anything until they know where we're going," he said. "We've got an airport that is valuable to the community. We should not throw it away."
Jeff Stanford, the airport's fixed base operations manager, said he supported moving the airport to another location because of limited space and security concerns.
"The airport cannot thrive where it is," he said. "It's not like we're losing an airport."
Stanford said he was concerned about the impact a plane crash could have on the base.
"It's only a matter of time before a small aircraft crashes on base," he said.
Buczek said base officials are still concerned about security and the potential for a crash on base, but promised that officials at Kings Bay will continue to "work closely with the city."
One good result from the lengthy debate is the FAA-imposed air space restrictions that have reduced the potential for accidents or possible terrorist attacks on base, Buczek said.
Larry Ehrlich, a pilot for The Jumping Place, a skydiving business operating from the airport, said the decision will help the business grow. The business can move ahead with plans to build a hangar at the airport.
"We want to be a permanent fixture in the community," he said. "An airport is vital to a growing city. It's an excellent decision."
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