Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Business

Public input sought on plan for longer runway at Clearwater Airpark

CLEARWATER — Clearwater Airpark's decade-old plan to lengthen its urban airstrip could soon face turbulence from nearby neighborhoods.

Airpark leaders want to extend the lone runway's northern end by 800 feet, giving pilots more room and quieting touchdowns for homes near the small airport's southern border.

They say their intention is not to attract jets or large planes, though turbine-powered planes could make use of the longer runway. Instead, they say, the extension would give pilots looking to abort a takeoff more room to make a decision.

But murmurs from last May, when neighbors fought the airport's plan to keep its runway open later, are already beginning to echo. The small airport on Hercules Avenue is hosting a meeting Tuesday for neighbors to sound off.

Nick Wilson, a Ridgeway Drive resident who lives north of the airport and denounced the "arrogance" of airport management last year, said he would likely attend.

"My first thought is — wow. Do they really need it?" Wilson said. "How much good is it going to do the community? Do the benefits outweigh the aggravation?"

The extension would be part of a larger project aimed at resurfacing the 3,500-foot runway, replacing hangars and repairing sinking sections of the taxiway. Built on a former landfill, the airport opened as a grass runway ringed by orange groves in 1939.

The state would pay for 80 percent of the project, or about $1.5 million, while the airport would pay the remaining $375,000. Work could begin in about six months, said Bill Morris, Clearwater's marine and aviation director.

They may not get there without a fight. With the airport tucked between neighborhoods and an industrial district, a lengthened runway would edge closer to homes near Keene Road and Flagler Drive.

Opponents have slammed the airport as a noisy danger and questioned the motives of the airport's leaders. Last year, false rumors flew that the airport was interested in serving as home base for U.S. Coast Guard aircraft. Neighbors unsuccessfully opposed the airport's move to keep its runway open later, closing at 11 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.

But even after last year's outcry, Clearwater's City Council has mostly defended the airport, saying it could be a unique neighborhood asset and a lifesaver during disasters or emergencies, since other Pinellas airports could be flooded in a storm. Also, the fact that the air strip was there decades before most of its neighbors has not won its opponents much sympathy.

With the runway extension, pilots will still need to take off well before the end of the runway to clear nearby trees, said Clearwater Airpark advisory board chairman Dennis Roper.

Pilots will still be instructed to bank eastward over the industrial district to avoid homes, Roper said. The added length could allow planes to fly higher, and quieter, over those homes.

Besides giving pilots more breathing room, the extension could help entice more commercial and recreational pilots flying turbine-powered planes that need longer runways, Roper said.

At 4,300 feet, the extended runway would be longer than St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport's shortest runway and both of Albert Whitted Airport's runways in downtown St. Petersburg.

"Aviation is expanding by leaps and bounds technologically, and we're kind of behind the curve," Roper said. "We have to be competitive. This is a better move."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]

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