FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. - The U.S. Navy will continue nighttime helicopter training missions at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport as it has for the past 30 years. But instead of landing on the east side of the airport, as the helicopters have done for the past two years, the city will open up some areas on the airport's westside to accommodate the operations.
Airport Manager Richard Johnson said the city has had noise complaints about the night helicopter training and has met with operations officers from Mayport Naval Station and Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Fernandina Beach is revising its agreement with the Navy to use the airport. The agreement was last updated in 1998.
Johnson said the helicopters do not come to the airport often, perhaps once every month or two.
The Navy helicopters used to land on runway on the westside of the airport. That runway was closed two years ago.
Ever since, the helicopters have used the same runways as the private jets and planes that fly into the airport, meaning the helicopters fly over more populated neighborhoods east of the airport.
By moving the landing area back to the westside, residents should be less disturbed by the noise of the helicopter rotors, city officials said.
When the agreement is signed, Johnson will notify the Federal Aviation Administration that the closed runway will be reopened only for those helicopter operations.
"It's a win-win-win situation for everyone," he said. "The Navy finds our airport perfect for night training because there are no lights. And on the west side of the airport, it's really dark at night."
The city receives no revenue from the Navy for using the airport because the federal government gave the city the airport after World War II.
"The military can pretty much fly and train wherever they want to," Johnson said.
At a City Commission meeting Tuesday, property owner Clark Hoshall said he was concerned the agreement with the Navy may leave the city open for lawsuits from McGill Aviation, the city's fixed base operator, because it could hamper McGill's business there.
The city and McGill currently are involved in mediation involving McGill's contract with the city.
Hoshall also said he was concerned that continuing to allow night helicopter operations at the airport could deter development of adjacent Crane Island and that could result in a lawsuit by the Amelia Island Co. and other developers as well as Crane Island property owners.
Amelia Island Co. President Jack Healan said Wednesday there is an aviation easement written into the development's covenants that inform buyers that there is an airport close by and there will be planes and helicopters flying in the area.
Johnson said Wednesday that when Crane Island is developed, the subject can be revisited with the Navy.
"The Navy has been very cooperative and they want to be good neighbors," Johnson said.
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"We're at the 'What-do-we-want-to-be-when-we-grow-up' stage," City Manager Michael Czymbor said. "We have to decide if we want to pay to play."