Faced with Modern Airport Rules, NSB May Have to Weigh Some Tough Decisions

July 10, 2019

NEW SMYRNA BEACH — What's a municipal airport to do when the feds start cracking down on runway safety regulations that would essentially shorten the runways, but the airport is surrounded by wetlands and roads that would make compliance costly and difficult?

That's the question now as regulations threaten to make New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport's runways obsolete.

City leaders and the aviation community are hoping the Federal Aviation Administration will wait four years to enforce rules that would have a chilling effect on nearly all airport users. The city needs the time to extend a secondary runway.

[RELATED: NSB paves way for $62 million airport plan with initial focus on runways]

"If we don't do something, the airport will actually shrink," said Mayor Russ Owen adding that at this point, "all signs are positive."

But what if they can't convince the FAA to hold off? There a wide range of potential solutions ranging from expensive to astronomical in cost ranging from less than $3 million to more than $1 billion.

"If not, We'll have to consider all the other options on the table," said Owen. And that, he added, "is gonna be a lose-lose decision no matter what."

Varied options

A study by contracted airport engineering and planning firm Avcon Inc. presented several options for long term fixes at an Airport Advisory Board meeting on Monday.

Mary Soderstrum, a senior airport planner with Avcon, said as long as the airport doesn't change the existing runways, for now at least, the airport is grandfathered in to allow for the new FAA rules.

But that won't work in the long term.

Some of the ideas Soderstrum presented are more realistic than others.

For instance, one of the "alternative solutions" described in the study is the $28 million closure of Sunset Drive to motorists and the possibility of creating a new bridge over Turnbull Creek to provide those motorists with an alternate route into the Isleboro neighborhood and out to U.S. 1.

Another is a billion-dollar-plus plan to tunnel both Sunset Drive and/or U.S. 1 underground — essentially putting the road under the airspace the FAA is concerned about.

Airport Advisory Board Chairman Gary Norville said much of the presentation was "throwing ideas around," and no one is sure what will happen yet. But there are serious downsides to doing nothing.

"Shortening the runway length could violate certain operating terms agreed to by the city when accepting federal funding and could leave us responsible for repayment of these funds," said Owen. "It could also negatively impact various businesses operating out of the airport."

The city could close Sunset Drive to comply with the rules, but there are clear downsides to that, too.

Owen and others are keenly aware that closing the road would be an inconvenience for residents of the neighborhoods to the north, and could pose emergency-response concerns.

Then, there's the possibility of relocating either U.S. 1 or Sunset, which poses not only environmental concerns because of the ecologically sensitive wetlands that surround the airport, but also financing concerns since that option would take years of planning and construction.

Debate on solutions

Federal regulations mandate a larger clearance area at the end of each runway, but because there are roadways, bodies of water and housing developments right outside airport property, there's no room to expand outside its boundaries. So as a temporary fix to comply with the rules, the takeoff and landing space has to shrink, essentially making the runways shorter.

To avoid all the potential negative side effects, the city is asking the FAA to give it time to adjust the operating length of the secondary runway, Runway 11-29, so that it could become the primary runway. That way, minor changes to the east-west runway, Runway 7-25, which borders both U.S. 1 and Sunset, wouldn't affect the roadways.

But that isn't really the optimal plan for either fixed businesses that operate out of the airport or those that use the airport as an overflow from Daytona Beach and Sanford, said Joe Zitzka, who operates Airgate Aviation, a carter flight operation based at the airport.

"The best thing to do is to have two 5,000-foot runways on the field," said Zitzka. "Everyone is trying to come up with the best option but there's a fine line between what the rules require and what some people would like to see happen, so I think it's challenging."

To get at least two runways into compliance at the airport, the city would face closing Sunset Drive, moving runway 7-25 and extending runway 11-29 over several years and several federal grant cycles.

"Do we have any alternative other than closing Sunset," Zitzka asked Soderstrum at the meeting.

"No. Not really," replied Soderstrum.

But no actual decision was made and for now, the airport seems to be in a holding pattern.

"This isn't about trying to expand the airport," said Owen. "This is about trying to protect it as-is."

The mayor, who was listening in in the audience, said closing Sunset is "the worst-case scenario."

What's next?

The extension of Runway 11-29 is part of an estimated $62 million overhaul of the airport approved by the City Commission early this year. The plan is paced over the next 20 years and while nothing is set in stone, much of the funding is expected to come from federal and state grants and nearly $7 million will have to come from airport revenue.

Rhonda Walker, the airport's general manager, said Tuesday that many city airports function just fine with a single 5,000-foot runway and New Smyrna Beach has been doing it for years.

"The best case scenario is that we can continue to operate without affecting anybody's business or the field," said Walker, but she can't be absolutely certain what the FAA will immediately decide.

"The FAA is going to do whatever is possible to not hinder an aviation business while still trying to promote safety at the airport," Walker said. "We will have to see."

She expects guidance from the agency by either the end of July or early August.


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