CLEARWATER — Clearwater Airpark is basically a single runway surrounded by residential subdivisions.
That's why some of its neighbors aren't happy that the small airport wants to extend its runway hours to 11 p.m. They're worried about more noise from airplanes landing later at night.
However, airport officials are trying to convince neighbors that the later hours are necessary for the city-owned airport to stay economically viable. They're trying to lure back corporate planes and pilots who have left for Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg and other airports that have more flexible hours.
The Clearwater City Council will decide the issue Thursday night, and the council is getting an earful from people on opposite sides of the issue.
The differences of opinion were on display at a public meeting at the airport last week. About 40 people showed up to discuss the plan and the discussion got heated at times.
They heard from four officials who run the airport: Gordon Wills, the city's airpark operations manager; Dennis Roper, chairman of the airpark advisory board; Barbara Cooper, general manager for the contractor that runs the airport for the city; and Bill Morris, the city's marine and aviation director.
Peppered with lots of questions, the four officials made several points:
• There will be no corporate jets landing at the airport. "The runway's not long enough," Cooper said. Instead, the airport is trying to attract more turboprop planes, which are relatively quiet.
• The proposal would set the airpark's hours from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Currently, flights stop at 9 p.m. or one hour after sunset, whichever is earlier.
• The change would be made on a one-year trial basis.
• Officials expect that relatively few planes will land after 9 p.m. "If you have three or four a month, you'd be lucky," Roper said. But he added that corporate planes routinely depart from the airport on daily business trips to destinations like Texas and Oklahoma. Sometimes their return gets delayed by bad weather, and the plane's owners want the option of landing in Clearwater later at night if necessary.
"Maybe they could plan their day better," responded audience member Elaine Granata, who lives in a condo beneath the airport's flight pattern. "I think 11 o'clock is too late. We have a lot of elderly people around here. We have to coexist."
Several other neighbors spoke out against the later hours, including two small children who announced that they go to bed at 8:30.
"I think 9 o'clock is late enough for a neighborhood airport," said community activist Howard Warshauer, who lives next to nearby Clearwater High School.
Some said they view the airport as a hazard and wouldn't mind seeing it close. The airport was surrounded by orange groves when it opened in 1939, but now it's bordered by neighborhoods. It's not located on the water, so planes must fly over the middle of Clearwater when they take off and land.
Other neighbors defended the airport, calling it a community asset. Several noted that they knew perfectly well that the airport was there when they decided to move next to it.
There's also the fact that, at 71 feet above sea level, Clearwater Airpark is much higher than other local airports, which are vulnerable to storm surge. If a major hurricane ever hits here, planes could still deliver supplies via the airport.
Roper, the chairman of the air park advisory board, said it's vital to lure back corporate planes because they buy plenty of fuel, and that's how the airport makes the bulk of its money. In contrast, recreational pilots are flying a lot less these days because fuel prices have shot up.
Roper said the airport used to cost taxpayers money, but at this point it's marginally profitable and doesn't cost the city anything. However, that could conceivably change due to high fuel prices and the slow economy.
"We're doing this because this airport has to survive," he said. "We are going to be as neighborhood-friendly as we can possibly be. Just give us a chance."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.