Pa. Airport Plan Greatly Clouded by Suspicions

In an attempt to remove one obstacle from the Doylestown Airport's runway, the Bucks County Airport Authority may have created a bigger one.

Opposition is growing against the authority's plan to close Stony Lane, a Buckingham Township thoroughfare that the state Bureau of Aviation calls a runway obstruction. The closure would enable the authority to extend the airport's sole runway from 3,000 to 3,800 feet, a move recommended by the state and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"More runway equals more planes, equals more noise," said Ann Koberna, a Buckingham Township resident who cowrote a petition against the proposal.

The airport authority has called a special meeting Thursday night to address the concerns of township residents and supervisors.

"The frustrating thing to me is there is so much misinformation and mistrust," said Paul Tollini, a pilot and authority member. "The airport authority has nothing to hide."

Buckingham supervisors say the authority wasn't being open when it failed to notify the township of a recommendation in the 2002 Statewide Airport System Plan, calling for a status change for Doylestown Airport from a basic facility for small aircraft to an advanced one for large planes and jets. If upgraded to advanced, Doylestown would have to extend its runway to 5,000 feet and increase its weight capacity from 12,500 pounds to 30,000 pounds.

The supervisors found out about the public document - which is on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Web site - through residents, said Henry Rowan, supervisors chairman.

They responded with a curt April 27 letter, calling the authority's lack of disclosure a "breach of trust," and saying they would oppose a runway extension unless the authority can "assuage" the concerns of residents.

In a written response, authority chairman Allen D. Black said his board had no part in the state plan and no interest in elevating Doylestown from basic to advanced.

"Nobody has ever considered that for Doylestown," he said in an interview. "And the state certainly hasn't pushed for that."

Koberna doesn't doubt Black. But his words, she said, offer no guarantees.

"While I respect the people at the airport authority," she said, "their assurance is not really comforting because their tenures will end."

The authority, a five-member board appointed by the county commissioners, could have quelled suspicions by publicly addressing the report, residents say.

"There's a lack of trust right now with what the airport is up to," said resident Paul Staffaroni.

The report has become "an albatross that somebody has put around our neck," Tollini said. Even he didn't know about the recommended status change until Staffaroni's wife, Lisa, informed him, he said.

The state Aviation Bureau, which is part of PennDot, recommended the change based on the large number of aircraft housed at Doylestown, said Kirk Wilson, bureau spokesman. There were about 180 aircraft housed there in 2003. The authority is under no obligation to follow the report's recommendation, Wilson said.

Jim Peters, FAA spokesman, concurred.

"An airport owner or operator is the only one that determines how an airport operates," he said. "We don't direct them to do anything except maintain a safe airport."

Safety prompted the authority to put the runway extension in its long-range plan, which is seven to 10 years off, Black said. Before that can happen, the authority has to own about 180 acres of land, 68 of which it already has purchased in partnership with the township.

In 2001, the township signed an agreement with the authority to acquire open space near the airport and to close or relocate Stony Lane. If the runway isn't extended, the authority likely would sell the newly acquired land to a developer, Black said.

Stony Lane, which connects Cold Spring Creamery and Landisville Roads, sits about 190 feet from the edge of the runway. The FAA considers anything within 300 feet an obstruction, Black said.

"We've never had an accident there, and we want to act promptly so we never do," he said.

Because the FAA standards came after the airport opened in 1957, they have not been imposed. But airports are expected to comply "where practical," Peters said, when seeking federal funds for improvements, as Doylestown is.

Immediate plans call for closing Stony Lane and installing a drainage system. Long-range plans include the runway extension, a new airport terminal and additional hangars.

With no tower, there is no accurate record of flights at the airport. But the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission estimates that 40,000 take-offs and landings occurred annually from the late 1980s through most of the 1990s. Operations peaked at more than 50,000 in 1999, but have dropped to about 43,000.

No matter how long the runway, Rockmaker said he doesn't see Doylestown becoming a magnet for large aircraft. Not with full-service airports like Lehigh Valley and Trenton-Mercer nearby.

While residents fear that a longer runway will bring more planes, the authority maintains it won't.

"The planners tell us that the amount of traffic at airports will be driven by the state of the economy and population growth or shrinkage," Black said. "The length of the runway isn't going to affect that."

The Bucks County Airport Authority will hold a public meeting on plans to expand Doylestown Airport at 7 p.m. Thursday at Cold Spring Elementary School, 4150 Durham Rd., Doylestown.