Untying Florida's Witham from Federal Cash May Not Be Easy

Frustrated Martin County commissioners voted last week to try to free Witham Field from the influence of the Federal Aviation Administration by refusing future state and federal airport grants and the strings that are attached to them.

But freedom from federal and state purse strings could prove tough for the county's airport as officials start to examine how they can pay for the airport's needs on their own.

"It's going to cost a lot of money to run this airport, and that money has to come from somewhere," said John Whitescarver, chairman of the Martin County Airport Noise Advisory Committee. He is also a member of the Witham Airport Action Majority Inc., which has been calling for the county to stop using a 460-foot extension of the airport's main runway because of noise, pollution from jets and safety concerns raised by neighbors.

Commissioners vented their anger Tuesday at the FAA for refusing to approve the county's plan to shorten the runway and claiming it would hurt airport businesses.

The county has $7 million in grants from the FAA and the state Department of Transportation, and it has applied for another $5 million grant, Airport Director Mike Moon said.

Because it accepts FAA grants, the county must follow the agency's rules and get approval for changes such as shortening the runway.

"The grant money is unconscionable," said Commissioner Susan Valliere, who has been calling for the county to stop taking FAA money for a long time. "We need to get local control back so we can control what flies over our homes."

If the county stops taking FAA and Transportation Department grants, which carry similar obligations, they could free themselves from FAA influence in about 20 years, Moon said. Commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Doug Smith dissenting, to pursue that idea Tuesday. FAA representatives could not be reached but have said in the past they want to avoid a confrontation with the county.

At a noise committee meeting Thursday, members worried about how the airport would afford to keep up with maintenance and improvements without federal money.

"If this was a private business, it would be bankrupt," committee member Jon Chicky said.

The county generates about $1.3 million a year from property leases, fuel sales and fees, Moon said, and spends about $1.2 million a year operating the airport, but grants pay for most of the maintenance costs.

The county is asking for $1.5 million from the state to rehabilitate one of the taxiways, and without grants the county would have to pay for that itself.

According to the airport's capital improvement budget, FAA and Transportation Department grants are expected to account for about 95 percent of the $29.2 million budgeted.

The FAA is also paying for most of the costs of a multimillion-dollar program to buy out homes affected by airport noise.

Witham Field wouldn't be the first airport to go without FAA money.

The FAA refused to give Centennial Airport in Denver any grants for almost four years because the airport refused to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights.

The airport eventually got federal law changed and started receiving grants again, but Robert Olislagers, Centennial Airport's executive director, said it was tough to keep its runways open.

"Those funds provided for all of the taxiway maintenance, and that created safety concerns," Olislagers said. "We almost had to shut down a runway."

Martin County Commissioner Lee Weberman said Witham Field would probably have to scale back operations to survive because he does not want to use any property tax money to support airport maintenance.

This could drive some of the larger jet owners to move, Weberman said.

Commissioner Sarah Heard said she thinks the airport can maintain its current level of operation on its own.

"It doesn't have to become a prop-only airport," Heard said of the potential loss of jets, leaving only propeller aircraft. "It's going to take some serious new infusions of cash, though."

Airport activist Ivar Wold has suggested charging a fee on all landings ranging from $5 to $200 depending on the plane's weight. He estimated the fee would raise more than $1 million per year. About 44,000 planes landed at Witham Field last year.

"I think the landing fee is the way out of all of this," said Dave Shore, president of Witham Airport Action Majority.

Moon said charging a landing fee was possible, but the FAA would only allow it if the agency determined it was reasonable and did not discriminate against particular types of aircraft.

Noise committee member Bill Frondorf countered that if the county stops taking FAA money, it could charge whatever landing fee it wants because the federal agency could not hold any real punishment over its head.

"What's the penalty? 'We're not going to give you any more money?' " Frondorf said sarcastically. "Aww. Too bad."

Heard and Valliere said they support charging landing fees as well as increasing the rents that businesses pay for space at the airport. Existing leases with businesses cannot be renegotiated for several years, but any new businesses should pay more, Heard said.

"The businesses that operate there should pay their fair share," she said.

But refusing federal grants alone might not free the airport from FAA influence.

The agency claims that when the federal government leased the airport for the military during World War II and returned it in 1947, it came back to the county with certain deed restrictions, said Peter Kirsch, an attorney hired by the county.

One of those restrictions the FAA is asserting is that all sales of airport land since 1947 needed approval by the federal government first. That didn't happen, so the FAA still has influence over that land, including the county's golf course and the YMCA, Kirsch said.

According to federal rules, deed restrictions on land given by the federal government to a local government never expire unless the FAA grants a waiver.

Kirsch said the county's argument is that it owned the land first and the federal government could not put deed restrictions on land it was leasing.

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