Roanoke Residents Get First Look at New Airport Study

Feb. 10, 2006
If the airport is approved, about 95 percent of the initial construction cost would come from the federal government, with 3 percent from the state and 2 percent from the county.

Larry Hylton bought 43 acres in Franklin County about 20 years ago intending to split it up and pass it along to his three children.

About a year and a half ago, however, Hylton said he was shocked to learn that those plans may have to be scrapped after he got a letter informing him that his was one of 18 Sontag properties the county was considering seizing by eminent domain in order to build a general aviation airport.

"I didn't realize it was for sale," he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Hylton went to the county's Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration to take a look at some results of a consultant's study on the impact of an airport in Sontag. The meeting, organized by the Board of Supervisors, was designed to give residents a sense of what to expect from the airport. Sometime this year, supervisors will likely vote on starting an environmental study on the Sontag site, the first of many steps before construction can start.

If the airport is approved, about 95 percent of the initial construction cost would come from the federal government, with 3 percent from the state and 2 percent from the county, said Jeff Tarkington, project manager for Talbert and Bright, the county's consulting firm. That wouldn't include a terminal or fuel farm, he said. Those would be built later and funded mostly by the state.

The consultants found that the first phase would cost somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, although the actual cost may end up being considerably higher. In particular, Tarkington said, the consultants don't have a firm idea of the site's topography. And moving dirt is going to prove very expensive because of a dip on the 330-acre site that would need to be filled, according to Andy Anderson, one of the affected landowners.

"Where would you get the dirt?" he said.

The airport would only serve private and corporate planes. Within five years of being built, it can expect to be the home base of 23 planes, increasing to just 25 planes within 20 years, according Jeff Wellman, an airport planner with Talbert and Bright. The firm also expects the airport to see about 9,000 take-offs and landings within five years and almost 11,000 within 20 years. All told, Wellman said, the airport will pump about $25 million into the county's economy over its first 20 years, a figure some termed optimistic.

"They're stretching the economic benefits to the county," said Bill Brush, who lives near Smith Mountain Lake. "Attracting the population's not a problem; growing jobs are and I don't see how this airport does that."

But an airport would help attract businesses to the county, said Nancy Hamlin, a member of the Franklin Aviation Network, which supports the airport.

Now, potential business investors have to use the airport in Roanoke and drive to Franklin County, a long commute, which she said has cost Franklin County some businesses.

"Can you imagine the scenario? You're 40 to 45 minutes down the road to Franklin County to figure out a site."

The airport has been talked about for about 40 years, she said, but this is the closest the county has come to building it. The opposition, Hamlin said, has come "only from the homeowners" whose land would be used.

How do you overcome that?

"I don't know that you can," she said. But "money usually helps."

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