In Its Runway Fight With the FAA, Martin County Will No Longer Take Federal Funds

Martin County commissioners on Tuesday voted to fight what could be a half-million-dollar battle against the Federal Aviation Administration over who controls Witham Field airport and its main runway.

And at the urging of an army of green-shirted residents, commissioners voted 4-1 to remove the airport from FAA's authority by not taking any more federal grants for the county airport.

"The people of Martin County have already gone 12 rounds over this issue. We're tired of hearing about negotiations," Palm City resident Ian Pollack said. "Let's just fight the FAA."

County commissioners voted 3-2 in July to stop using 460 feet of the airport's main runway after neighbors had complained for years that the northwest end of the runway, built in 1998, was causing noise, pollution and safety problems over their homes.

FAA officials in Orlando have refused to approve that decision, saying they will not allow a solution that has any negative effect on airport users, said Peter Kirsch, an attorney the county hired to lobby the FAA.

"We believe that is a standard the county should not have to meet," Kirsch said.

The FAA has also taken the position that every sale or transfer of land from Witham Field's boundaries since 1947 should have received federal approval first because the land originally came from the federal government, Kirsch said. The FAA has argued that the land being used for the YMCA, the Martin Golf and Country Club, Monterey Road and parts of the Monterey Commons development are still part of the airport and are still subject to federal control, Kirsch said.

"The agency is so far overreaching on this that it defies common sense," Kirsch said.

The county could probably win the runway shortening fight if it lobbied federal legislators and the FAA's Washington office and could probably sue the FAA over the land-sale issue and win, Kirsch said. But winning both of those battles could cost about $500,000, Kirsch estimated.

Commissioners voted 4-1, with Commissioner Doug Smith dissenting, to fight the FAA's positions and try to negotiate a resolution with the federal agency at the same time.

Commissioner Lee Weberman said the county should fight over control of the surplus land it has sold off from the airport's boundaries because the political fallout for the FAA would be tremendous.

"I'd like to see 1,000 members of the golf course and 500 members of the YMCA start calling Senator Nelson," said Weberman, referring to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "It's an absolute loser position, so 'go for it, FAA.' "

Kirsch said he thinks the FAA is taking extreme positions with Martin County because FAA officials originally told the county to pursue other options rather than shortening the runway and the county went against their wishes.

"They are less than willing to help Martin County because they perceive the county as being a less than eager player in the federal bureaucracy," Kirsch said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to ask Nelson, as well as other members of the Florida federal legislative delegation, to intervene on the county's behalf and make the FAA treat the county fairly.

"We need to get political help fast," Commissioner Sarah Heard said.

FAA officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said last week that her agency hopes to work out an agreement without a confrontation.

Activists who have been calling for the shortening of the runway for years were calling for the county to give back about $12 million worth of grants the county has accepted from the FAA, shorten the runway with or without FAA approval and sue if necessary to win the airport's freedom.

"The FAA is going to grind us down and destroy us unless we de-federalize," said Bill Shanley, one of more than 50 residents who showed up in green shirts toting picket signs calling for the county to go ahead with the shortening the runway.

The county cannot just shorten the runway even if it wants to because shortening it without the FAA's blessing would violate federal laws, County Attorney Steve Fry said.

"You'd be provoking a confrontation with the federal government over their fundamental authority," Fry said.

Commissioners did not want to stop using the runway without FAA approval. But they voted 4-1, with Smith dissenting, to stop taking federal grants for the airport. As the existing grants expire over the next 20 years the FAA will have less and less say over what the county does at Witham Field, Weberman said.

Smith said fighting to shorten the runway was getting too expensive and hostile and that the FAA's position over the airport land issue may be a response to the county fighting the federal agency to shorten the runway.

"Pandora's Box has been opened. We asked for it and now we got it," Smith said. "The cost to get out of it is tremendous."

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