Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority OKs land donation

Sep. 30--Airport relocation took another step forward Thursday, as the Panama City-Bay County International Airport Authority unanimously approved a long-anticipated land donation agreement with the St. Joe Co.

The agreement transfers 4,000 acres of land near West Bay for construction of a new airport. It provides almost 10,000 acres for environmental mitigation and conservation purposes.

Airport board Chairman Joe Tannehill negotiated with St. Joe on the agreement. Tannehill said he thought it was fair to the company, airport and the community, and emphasized that the commitments made by St. Joe in 1999 were contained in the current agreement.

Tannehill said the document now goes to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval. He cautioned that board members may have to revisit the agreement if the FAA has concerns.

"It may or may not come back intact," Tannehill said.

Executive Director Randy Curtis said the agreement contains a reverter clause that allows St. Joe to regain possession of the property if the airport authority discontinues the relocation project, does not start construction on a new airport within two years of closing on the deal, or does not open the new airport within five years of the closing date.

The property also would revert to St. Joe if a judicial decision renders the project unfeasible.

Board member Bill Cramer said the agreement calls for St. Joe to reimburse the FAA, the Florida Department of Transportation and the airport authority for funds used for planning and construction if the property reverts back to the company.

Other provisions of the agreement give St. Joe the right to connect to utilities on airport land, with the company being responsible for impact fees, user changes and cost of utility expansion beyond what the airport requires.

The company also will donate land to the airport for construction of an access road to connect the airport to County 388, with St. Joe retaining the right to access its property adjacent to the road.

Audience member Carl Peterson asked Curtis when the airport would get title to the land.

Curtis responded that the airport would receive it prior to construction.

At the board's Aug. 23 meeting, Curtis said the airport should receive the FAA's final Environmental Impact Statement regarding relocation on Nov. 4, with a Record of Decision expected from the agency in January 2006.

After Thursday's meeting, Tannehill said groundbreaking might be pushed back to April, depending on when the FAA delivers its decision.

"Once the EIS is accepted, we're in a race against the clock," Tannehill said.

Board members also unanimously authorized Bechtel Infrastructure to proceed with $3.5 million in preconstruction work items related to airport relocation. They include the second phase of the new airport's preliminary design, at a cost of about $2.1 million.

A vote on a draft request for proposals for the existing airport's sale was tabled for an October special meeting.

In other business, Curtis said August airport activity was adversely impacted by Hurricane Katrina, but added that total passengers had increased 1.5 percent compared to August 2004.

Year-to-date, the airport is down 1.37 percent in total passengers compared to the same time last year.

Passenger enplanements have dropped 3.89 percent in the year-to-date, while deplanements are up 1.24 percent, according to the airport.

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