Houston Airport a Result of Rapid Growth; Some Critical of Possible Noise, Harm to Wildlife

The move from a grassy landing strip for crop-dusters to an asphalt runway for small business jets speaks to the rapid growth on Houston's west side.

Earthmovers are at work at the South Waller County Airport, which is being built on a 1,980-acre site between Brookshire and Katy.

This project, designed to capture business from the quickly growing Energy Corridor area along Interstate 10, is the latest addition to the Houston area's growing general aviation sector.

Protesters concerned about everything from noise to the danger of birds colliding with planes stymied the previous effort to build an airport. While developers ultimately received FAA permission to build at the original location, they moved on to the second site.

This time around, the group led by business executive Ron Henriksen has already won the permits needed from the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA officials said they're satisfied that air traffic will not interfere with flights from other area airports or violate environmental rules. The developers don't need any further permission from the FAA until they want to expand.

But opposition to the airport - a conversion of the existing Air Rice facility to a public-use business aviation airport - will remain a concern for the developers, who have growth plans.

The site, north of I-10 and west of FM 2855, is closer to I-10 than the initial site and has more room for expansion, said attorney Drew Coats, a spokesman on the airport project for Henriksen, the president and chief executive of Logix Communications.

Opponents say the South Waller airport could bring trouble. One of those is Remington Trails resident Nancy Gabany, who contends there is a high probability of bird strikes.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who represents District 10, where the airport is located, said, "I have concerns about this airport, including noise issues which impact the surrounding neighborhoods."

He added he also respects the rights of private property owners. Asked whether that referred to Henriksen, a spokesman said the statement speaks for itself.

Expansion plans

Plans call for expanding the runway from 4,500 to 7,000 feet five years after opening, along with adding a business aviation terminal and other facilities. Site preparation began last year.

"His overall design is to really create a first-class business airport for the west side of Houston, for corporate jets," said Jay Tribble a principal in Tribble & Stephens, the general contractor.

Corporate jets have other options in the area. They can fly out of the two biggest airports in town: Hobby Airport or George Bush Intercontinental Airport, or use use other facilities, including the Sugar Land Regional Airport with its 8,000-foot runway. Coats said Hobby cannot keep absorbing flights.

George Dodge, president of Western Airways, an aircraft charter and management company, doesn't expect the new airport to siphon significant business from airports like Sugar Land Regional, where Western is based.

"Sugar Land is closer in," Dodge said. "Most of the oil companies in west Houston are nearby, and there is not a lot of incentive to go further."

If the South Waller airport follows through on its plan to build a 7,500-foot runway, it would offer some competition.

"The city is moving farther out that way, and there will be business for it," said Dodge, who calls Henriksen a friend and has discussed the airport with him. "Probably having that out there would be a little bit of a reliever because it can take some overflow from here."

Appropriate airspace

On airports like this one, the FAA is required to see if the airspace is appropriate for the flights expected there, said Ben Guttery, FAA airport planner.

"If it won't work, we will object," he said. "That is what happened with the earlier site."

For example, the developers had to ensure there was no standing water on the site that could attract birds. Birds long have been drawn to the area near the Waller County site because so many rice fields once were abundant there, the FAA official said.

Guttery said he and an FAA biologist visited the Waller site to look at the wildlife issues firsthand.

"Part of the recommendation we have is he develop a wildlife hazard management plan," Guttery said. "That helps him operate the airport and get along with the wildlife that is out there."

The Katy City Council voiced opposition to the plan a year ago. The Katy Area Economic Development Council has not taken a position on the airport.

"We have a task force studying the airport," said Lance LaCour of the economic development council.

...

SOUTH WALLER COUNTY AIRPORT

Focus: Business aviation and general aviation, including prop planes and business jets

Site: 1,980 acres

Projected opening: January 2007

Runway: 4,500 feet, with plans to extend to 7,000 feet

Developer: WCF

Principal: Ron Henriksen

Project engineer: Garver Engineers

General contractor: Tribble & Stephens



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