FAA Favors Airport New Panama City Site

May 12--PANAMA CITY -- For airport relocation proponents, Thursday's news was as good as it gets.

The Federal Aviation Administration released its final environmental impact statement, or EIS, that serves as the next-to-last hurdle in efforts to move the Panama City-Bay County International Airport to a 4, 000-acre West Bay site.

The verdict: An 8,400-foot runway at West Bay is the FAA's preferred alternative in addressing the area's growth and airport operation needs.

The much-anticipated and much-delayed statement serves as the precursor to the FAA's record of decision, which will ultimately decide if the airport moves to The St. Joe Co.-donated land.

In 2004, the FAA released a draft EIS that narrowed some 25 options to a handful, including taking no action, expanding the existing airport's runway to either 6,800 or 8,400 feet or building a new airport with runways at 6,800 or 8,400 feet.

The final EIS comes after several public hearings, a public comment period and further FAA analysis.

The West Bay option was selected "because of its superior ability to meet the purposes and needs of the project with fewer constraints than presented by any of the existing site alternatives," the EIS stated.

It said that neither site, from an environmental standpoint, "can be deemed superior."

The existing site, the EIS said, impacts surrounding communities with noise and the relocation of residences and businesses.

The West Bay site would not impact humans but would impact "wetlands and biotic communities," particularly the loss or damage to more than 1,300 acres of wildlife habitat and destruction of more than 596 acres of wetlands.

The FAA noted, though, that those impacts would be mitigated by the enhancement and conservation of habitats and wetlands on some 10,000 acres near West Bay that St. Joe has offered to donate for that purpose.

The FAA's preferred plan, a new airport with an 8,400-foot runway, meshes with the Airport Authority's.

"It is obviously a very welcomed result," said Airport Authority board member Bill Cramer. "It's a big day for us."

The EIS is a major milestone, Airport Authority Executive Director Randy Curtis said.

The FAA will take public comments on any issues not addressed in the 1,000-plus page document for 45 days after its official issuance on May 19.

Curtis said he expects the record of decision by September.

"Once we've cleared this hurdle," Curtis said, "at that point in time it's really a matter of finalizing the funding and getting one additional permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."

The project is estimated to cost $312 million.

The sale of the current airport site, expected in the fall, is expected to draw at least $54 million, though some estimates put that figure as high as $100 million.

The FAA and Florida Department of Transportation are expected to grant about $100 million each toward the project and the remainder of the funding will come from Airport Authority bonds and cash reserves, Curtis said.

The EIS cost between $5 million and $6 million, Curtis said, and the FAA paid about 95 percent of that cost.

Airport construction can begin once the record of decision is issued and the project design and bidding is completed, which could be as early as the beginning of next year, Curtis said.

The project would take a total of about three years to complete, he said.

Still, airport opponents can challenge the EIS.

"Basically we assumed they would be challenged; everything we've done up to this point has been," Curtis said.

The favorable tone of the EIS might make those challenges difficult to stick, Curtis said.

"This was an extremely favorable ruling," Cramer said. "We were pleasantly surprised."