Destin, Fla., Homeowners Weigh in on Airport Control Tower

Mar. 22 -- Some Destin homeowners say building a control tower at Destin Airport will make them safer, but other residents believe the tower won't solve problems the airport causes.

"I have very mixed emotions," Betty Kenyon of the Destin Airport Committee said in an interview. "I recognize it's needed for the safety factor (but) the expansion of everything at the airport is pushing citizens out of the city."

Kenyon is one of several residents who've protested to Okaloosa County, which owns the airport, about jet fumes, pilots revving their engines at night and planes flying low over homes.

Okaloosa County Airport Director Jerry Sealy announced recently that the county and Eglin Air Force Base were working together to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to approve a tower, an option the FAA has rejected in the past.

Airport Committee member Robert Fairweather, a pilot himself, said a tower would be an excellent first step to improving life around the airport.

"I think from the safety standpoint, it's a major, major step," Fairweather said. "Some people fly in and kind of barge through the traffic. When you put a tower on the field, it forces everyone to follow certain patterns ... which usually helps keep traffic from endangering the community."

Fairweather said by directing pilots to specific airspaces, the tower could also cut down on the noise that reaches homeowners.

Another benefit, Kenyon said, is that if homeowners want to report a plane that flow low over their house, the staff in a tower would be able to identify the plane. Homeowners have complained repeatedly that airport employees say they don't track planes closely enough to identify problem pilots.

However, Kenyon said, the tower can't solve the underlying incompatibility of an airport in a residential area that grows busier every year: "If you keep flying more and more aircraft in ... they're bringing it on themselves to have an accident happen."

Kenyon added that the benefits of the airport went to "millionaires and billionaires" rather than to regular Destin residents.

While airport supporters have argued the Destin economy benefits from the monied visitors who arrive by plane, homeowner Mark Nacol said residents would see more benefits if the county turned the airport property over to residential developers.

"Shut it down and put homes there, so we can have more property taxes for Destin," Nacol said.

The county first proposed a tower to the FAA in 2000, but the FAA said Destin Airport wasn't busy enough to win FAA funding. Sealy has said the county's airport funding, which is separate from the rest of the county budget, can't pay $1.2 million for a tower without federal support.

Airport Operations Manager Terry Curry said the county's latest proposal hinges not on traffic volume but on the safety issues caused by having a small but busy airport next to Eglin's airspace.

It will be at least nine months before the county completes the application process, Curry said, because it will take that long to meet a new federal rule requiring the county select three possible tower sites at the airport.

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