New Florida Airport Won't Be Built On 'Backs' Of Regional Carriers

Panama City, Fla., is eyeing a May 2006 construction start and clearing the way for the first new regional airport to be built in almost a decade.

While the initial development of the new airport is currently confined to two runways, including an 8,400-foot primary runway, and terminal facilities on a 1,500-acre parcel, Curtis said the entire 4,000-acre site would be able to handle long-term growth plans. A 12,000-foot runway has already been sited on the airport's master plan. By comparison, the new Panama City airport would encompass the same acreage as New York's JFK.

The airport has attempted to get as much of its 40-year building plan permitted at this time since environmental impact and mitigation review processes can take decades, Curtis said. Under the state review process, Curtis said the airport is able to seek permits for almost 95 percent of the full site. The state permit is expected this month, he added. The federal review rules will not allow regulators to grant approvals for projects long into the future. Curtis said the airport now anticipates a preliminary ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by Nov. 4.

As part of the environmental review process, the airport has agreed to turn over to Florida 10,000 acres to replace any wetlands that the new airport may disturb.

In a first for development projects in the Florida Panhandle area, the airport authority and St. Joe have submitted a 72,000-acre parcel to local authorities for extensive zoning and land use controls. (The parcel is 20 percent larger than the District of Columbia.) St. Joe controls 40,000 acres surrounding West Bay. All of the waterfront land - on which 16,000 housing units could have been built under its old zoning - will be placed into a conservation easement. The 10,000 acres that would be used to replace any wetlands are part of this easement.

Curtis said because such a large area is now undeveloped, the airport has been able to implement safety and buffer zones around the airport. The land use plans call for only light commercial and industrial development around the airport. All future residential communities would be located away from the airport to mitigate noise problems. "It is very unique to be handed a clean sheet of paper and to design a new airport and to do it right," he said.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville, Ark., which opened in 1998, was the last "clean slate" airport to be built.

In these turbulent economic times for airlines, Curtis said it is unreasonable to expect to new carriers to commit to start service in 2009. Nevertheless, airline engineers have been examining the airport's plans with an eye on designing the most efficient operations, he said. The designers will begin working on the blueprints for the terminal building in about six months.

>>Randall Curtis, Panama City airport, (850) 763-6751.

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