CLEARWATER — The lone runway at the Clearwater Airpark is 3,500 feet long. Tonight, the City Council will likely vote to make it 600 feet longer.
Officials are quick to say that this is not about attracting bigger planes to the small municipal airport. That would generate a lot of controversy and vocal opposition from the surrounding neighbors, some of whom view the airport as a nuisance.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with bringing in larger aircraft," said Gordon Wills, the city's airpark operations manager. "It's about safety."
The airport wants to extend the runway's northern end, giving pilots more room and quieting landings for homes near the airport's southern boundary.
Officials say no corporate jets will be landing at the airport, although relatively quiet turboprop planes could make use of the longer runway. They say the runway extension would give pilots looking to abort a takeoff more room to make a decision.
"It will allow airplanes to back up and take off farther back so they can get up and away from the neighborhoods quicker," said Bill Morris, the city's marine and aviation director. "Pilots say there are three things of little use to a pilot: Airspace above you, runway behind you, and fuel in the truck.
"Having more runway in front of you is a good thing. It gives pilots more options if they don't have enough power to take off."
The City Council will be asked to approve the $1.875 million project tonight. The state would pay for 80 percent of the work, or $1.5 million, while the city and airport would pay the remaining $375,000.
Ajax Paving Industries, based in Nokomis, won the contract out of 12 bidders. If approved tonight, construction would start soon and would be finished within five months.
Built on a former landfill, the airport opened as a grass runway ringed by orange groves in 1939 — well before the nearby neighborhoods existed.
Opponents have slammed the airport as a noisy danger, and last year some neighbors unsuccessfully opposed the airport's move to keep its runway open later, closing at 11 p.m. instead of 9 p.m.
But city officials defend the airport, saying it's a good asset and could be a lifesaver in disasters, since other Pinellas airports could be flooded in a storm.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.