Palm Beach Runway Fight Resurfaces

It's been more than six months since a 3-2 vote by the Martin County Commission to stop using part of Witham Field's main runway quieted a throng of picketing and protesting residents opposed to the airport's growth. But the 460-foot section of runway in question is still being used by planes.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have not made an official ruling on the runway but have passed along comments that they are leaning against approving the county's wishes to take the section out of service. Airport activists, who say the runway has led to jet noise, pollution and safety problems over the surrounding homes, are planning to dust off their picket signs on Tuesday when county commissioners discuss what to do next.

Peter Kirsch, an attorney hired by the county to get the FAA's approval to decommission 460 feet of the runway, will brief commissioners after hearing from FAA officials that they would not support shortening the runway.

Assistant County Administrator Taryn Kryzda said county officials will ask commissioners for suggestions on how to proceed.

The commission's July vote to stop using part of the runway came after years of residents' protests and after officials with the FAA's regional office in Orlando said the airport needed to fix problems with its runway protection zone, the areas around both ends of the runway.

A Nov. 17 letter from the FAA said that removing the 460 feet from service would hurt the safety and efficiency of the airport. A Dec. 12 e-mail stated the FAA would be willing to help pay to move a fence on the southeast side of the runway into the Martin Golf and Country Club to fix that protection zone, but it would not approve the county's shortening idea.

"This office cannot approve this proposal or any proposal that removed, eliminates use of or abandons usable runway pavement," the e-mail said.

County commissioners and airport activists said they are getting frustrated with the federal agency and will suggest that the county kick its efforts up a notch.

"Obviously, FAA Orlando has no interest in doing anything but spinning our wheels," County Commissioner Lee Weberman said. "We've tried it the FAA's way. Now we need to be more aggressive."

Weberman said he thinks the FAA and the county commission both violated some of their policies by approving the runway extension in 1998 and that Kirsch should try to show the pavement never should have been installed, rather than focusing on noise issues.

Weberman also suggested that the county should lobby state and federal legislators to put pressure on the FAA and that the county should appeal its case directly to the agency's regional office in Atlanta or its headquarters in Washington.

"I think we need to go up the ladder," Weberman said.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said that the regional office in Atlanta is already aware of the runway issue and that the Orlando office has not made a final decision.

Dave Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority, a group that has fought to have the section of runway removed, suggested taking an even more drastic tack with the FAA. He thinks the county should remove the runway from service whether the FAA approves or not.

"We need to just go ahead and decommission that runway and not wait for the FAA," Shore said.

The FAA has given the airport thousands of dollars in grants, including money to buy homes around the airport that are affected by noise. County officials said in July that they needed the FAA's approval to stop using the runway extension and that going against the federal agency's wishes could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal airport grants.

Shore said he did not think the FAA had any right to pull any grants to the county because the runway extension was built with county taxpayer money.

Maggie Wold, a Stuart resident who started the trend of airport activists picketing commission meetings, agreed.

"I don't think the FAA is in a position to dictate to the county what it can do," Wold said.

Airport users, including businesses, also showed up in force in July with picket signs and buttons asking the county commission not to shorten the runway, fearing that would cause the airport to lose flights and business.

David Smith, president of Galaxy Aviation of Stuart, an airplane service center, said there will be no organized effort to get airport businesses to the commission meeting Tuesday.

"This is an issue between Martin County and the FAA," Smith said. "The law is the law."

Bergen, the FAA spokeswoman, said she hopes the situation does not come to a showdown between the agency and the county.

"We always work toward a win-win situation for everybody," she said.

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