The federal agency in charge of protecting the nation's wetlands announced Thursday that it has approved wiping out 2,000 acres of Panhandle swamps for a new $330-million airport.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit is the last one backers needed to start construction on the taxpayer-funded airport, the first to be built in the United States since the airline industry's downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The St. Joe Co., the Panhandle's biggest developer, is donating the site 20 miles northwest of Panama City in a location so remote that its nearest neighbor is the 6,900-acre Pine Log State Forest.
At 4,000 acres, the completed airport will be larger than Tampa International Airport.
Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network called the airport project "the next great Florida boondoggle," and Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, which has previously sued over other St. Joe-related permits, vowed to seek an injunction blocking any construction.
Young said she was particularly disappointed to hear the permit had been approved because the corps' new regulatory boss in Florida, David Hobbie, had earlier Thursday told a gathering in Panama City that he planned big changes for the agency.
"We believe we made a good decision," Hobbie said Thursday afternoon, noting that the corps had concluded building the airport benefited the public interest more than saving the wetlands. "I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with us."
The announcement was hailed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who said the new airport would be "an important opportunity for the region to compete for better and more competitive air service, as well as to attract new businesses and jobs to grow and diversify the local economy."
Wetlands swap key
For both the corps and state officials a major selling point for the project is that St. Joe has promised to make up for the wetlands damage by preserving 9,000 acres southeast of the airport site.
"Mother Nature is the best placemaker of all time, and now we will be protecting forever some of her best work," Rummell said in a news release Thursday.
However, Young compared the preservation plan, which has been endorsed by such environmental groups as Audubon of Florida, to saying "we're going to preserve your arms and legs forever, but we're going to cut out your heart and liver."
Barry Zweig, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker/Carroll Realty in Panama City Beach, predicted the new airport will be a tremendous boon to an area that has seen real estate prices drop 20 to 25 percent in the past year.
"Once they start turning dirt, we'll see things really rapidly escalate,'' he said.
The announcement has already boosted St. Joe's fortunes. The company's share price had been depressed, trading well below a 52-week high of more than $60 in February. But after the airport approval was announced, the company's stock price closed at $34.56, up $1.08.
Sheila McGrath, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods in New York City, said the airport approval was "a significant positive for northwest Florida that will ultimately benefit St. Joe."
The announcement also bodes well for H. Vaughn Blaxter III, a veteran Pittsburgh real estate developer whose company is buying the current 714-acre airport site on Panama City's waterfront, with plans to develop it into homes, stores, a hotel and a marina.
"It's a phenomenal site ... 12,500 feet of waterfront," Blaxter told the Pittsburgh Business Times last week. "You just don't find that kind of acreage in that area available."
Panama City's current airport is so quiet the control tower shuts down at 10 p.m. It offers a dozen daily commercial flights, half the number it had five years ago.
Top leaders back plan
But airport officials have fretted that the location is vulnerable to hurricane storm surge and that the runways are too short to handle big jetliners. Efforts to extend the runways into St. Andrews Bay ran afoul of environmental groups, which objected to filling in seagrass beds. Young of the Clean Water Network said putting a marina on that site might be just as damaging.
Then, in November 1999, St. Joe Co. CEO Peter Rummell wrote to airport officials offering to donate land for a new airport. Rummell told stockholders the airport was "essential" to spurring development on more than 70,000 acres of St. Joe land around the airport site. In a 2002 interview he said that without the new airport, the company's plans might never bear fruit.
Rummell personally lobbied then-Gov. Jeb Bush to back the project, and it also has drawn support from Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. So far the Federal Aviation Administration has committed $72-million to fund the relocation, and state funding commitments for the project to date total $119-million.
'Perfect poster child'
The project kept moving forward despite a 2004 nonbinding referendum vote, in which Bay County residents voted 54 percent to 46 percent to oppose moving the airport - even though the ballot language said the move would not cost local taxpayers a dime.
"The citizens don't want it, but the government and the powers that be continue to shove it on through," said John Hedrick of the Panhandle Citizens Coalition. He called the project a "perfect poster child" for the Florida Hometown Democracy movement, which seeks to require any growth plan changes be approved by voters, not the government.
Zweig, the Panama City real estate agent, predicted the new airport will attract vacation home buyers from the northeast United States as well as Europe, well beyond the Panhandle's traditional draw of Alabama and Georgia. "They have no idea what remarkable value still exists down here,'' he said. "And they have money."
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.