Federal officials said they cannot support the shortening of Witham Field's main runway but they will give Martin County more time to prove its case before denying the proposed shortening, according to a letter received by the county Wednesday.
"The Federal Aviation Administration cannot concur in an action that adversely affects the safety, utility or efficiency of the airport," reads a Nov. 17 letter to Martin County from Bart Vernace, assistant manager of the FAA's Orlando district office. "The proposal to abandon the 460-foot extension in the approach of Runway 12 obviously impacts the utility of the airport (and with no apparent benefit.)"
Martin County commissioners voted 3-2 in August to render a 460-foot extension to runway 12/30 built in 1998 unusable to pilots. Neighbors of the airport have been lobbying for the removal of the extension for years, claiming it caused jets to fly closer to their homes, increasing jet noise and pollution.
Vernace told the county during that August meeting that he didn't think the FAA would support shortening the runway because it might cause airport businesses to lose revenue through lower fuel sales.
County officials hired attorney Peter Kirsch and went to Orlando in October to argue their case for shortening the runway.
The letter states that the FAA supports an alternative solution to the noise problems that would keep the extension in use and extend safety zones around the southern end of the runway out into the nearby Martin Golf and Country Club.
The county considered but decided not to select this option, which also had been recommended by a consultant.
The golf course and nearby YMCA are on land that used to be part of the airport, but the FAA has questioned whether that land was ever legally removed from the airport's map.
Kirsch is preparing a legal case for the county to prove to the FAA that the county-owned golf course is not part of the airport land and cannot be used as part of the runway solution, said Assistant County Administrator Taryn Kryzda.
Kryzda said Kirsch will ask the FAA for further clarification of what the letter means.
The letter asks the county to publish its proposal to fix the runway problems in local newspapers for 30 days to get more public input before the FAA makes a final ruling on the runway shortening.
"It's not a final denial," said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. "It's asking the airport to get more public comment."
Commissioners Lee Weberman, Sarah Heard and Susan Valliere, who all voted to shorten the runway, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
County officials have said in the past that the county could shorten the runway without the FAA's blessing, but it probably wouldn't have the money to make the changes without the FAA's help. Going against the FAA's wishes could also jeopardize future federal grants to the airport, county officials have said.
Dave Shore, president of the Witham Airport Action Majority Inc. group that has lobbied for years to shorten the runway, disagreed with the FAA's findings. The county has spent millions of dollars in federal grants buying out homes near the runway because of noise problems, and removing the extension might lessen the need to buy homes, he said.
"That's the benefit," Shore said Wednesday, adding that he hopes the county votes to shorten the runway regardless of the FAA. "Unless it affects the safety of current users, the FAA should step back and not get involved."
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