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

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

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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