Will the fight over the island's airport spark a new political movement?

December 25, 2007 

What might have been an iconic moment in the debate over Hilton Head Island's controversial runway ordinance came during a moment of frustration for Mayor Tom Peeples in his address to a group of Realtors last week.

Charlie Reed, a member of the citizens group opposing the ordinance, said the town was being downright irresponsible for not allowing the airport to cut down all the trees that protrude into flight paths. Peeples, slowly losing composure and amping up his volume as he tried to defend himself and the town to a hostile crowd of critics, bristled at the suggestion that the town's tree protections were unimportant.

"If this town then just doesn't care any more about oak trees, then just sell what you're going to sell," Peeples snapped at the gathering of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors.

It was one of several tense moments that exposed the rift between the town, which wants to gain some control over the airport, and the business community, which sees a viable airport as crucial to the local economy. The ordinance, approved last Tuesday, rezoned the county owned airport, preventing the runway from expanding beyond the current 4,300 feet without the town's approval.

The debate has drawn the a great deal of public interest and sparked some of the most vehement protest since the Cross Island Parkway was proposed. But it also might signal a critical turning point in the town's history where the interests of businesses and commerce are competing directly with the image of Hilton Head as a quiet, natural sanctuary.

"Yes, I do think this is the beginning of a movement to change away from what we have been," Peeples said in an interview earlier this month. In terms of the land, people, environment and culture of the island, "People seem to have less and less respect for that," he said.

POLITICAL MOVEMENT?

The most direct result of this shift could be the emergence of a new political movement on the island. It would replace the period of apathy and disinterest that has surrounded Town Council elections for the past several years.

The group Citizens to Protect the Hilton Head Island Airport succeeded in firing up a large segment of the population over the runway issue and contributing to the biggest Town Hall crowds in a decade. The next election isn't until 2010, but the group intimated last week it may encourage some candidates if the council doesn't have a change of heart. Airport supporters said they were stunned all the council members would ignore the opposition of groups like the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and the Realtors Association. Many opponents pleaded with the town to complete a feasibility study before taking the action.

"Next election, you'll see some change," group member Gary Gildner said. "It just never came to our belief that Town Council would do something like this."

CHURCH BACKS TOWN

The town and native island community have often been at odds, but found themselves on the same side of the runway debate.

Native islanders who have felt neglected by the town in the past were happy the council jumped in to get a say on the future of the runway, said Charles Young III, the president of the Baygall, Mitchelville, Big Hill and Grassland Property Owners Association and a deacon at St. James Baptist Church.

The 122-year-old St. James church sits off the end of the runway directly under flight paths. If the runway was ever lengthened, the church would probably have to move or endure even more shaking of its walls. It has declined an FAA offer to provide sound insulation for the building.

The church is a gathering spot for neighborhood meetings and, to many, is a symbol of the native island community's fading heritage that dates back to post-slavery days. What upsets church and community members is that out of all the folks who spoke at town meetings about the need for a larger runway, not one mentioned how it would impact the surrounding neighborhood or the church.

"I don't think they're thinking of the value people have placed in this church," said Young, sitting in the church where names of deceased congregation members adorn the windows. "We've got people down there that have (had) property for generations and generations."

The town's action gives the community some comfort, he said, because it appears airport growth would only benefit a small number of plane owners and businesses.

"You're going to have new people coming in that are not part of this island," Young said. "These people just don't seem to care. They have a lot of money and they can spend it to get what they want."

A PUSH FOR PLANNING

But the concerns of those businesses are nothing to be disregarded either, members of the pro-airport group say.

As aviation trends change, celebrities, golfers and homeowners will fly slightly bigger airplanes that could be incompatible with Hilton Head's runway. Places with longer runways like St. Simon's Island in Georgia then could inherit the traffic that used to fly to Hilton Head, group chairman Jack Schuler said. Not to mention the concern if the two commercial airlines decide to pull their traffic if the small planes they use become unprofitable.

To supporters, not updating the airport is like not upgrading U.S. 278 to handle new traffic patterns.

"The people that are included in this group are only interested in what's going to happen to this community five, 10, 20 years from now," he said. "(The council) are not planning for the future."

Residents may not like airport noise, but for businesses that can locate nearby, the sound of jet engines is the sound of cash.

Some businesses and residents -- including Schuler -- say they moved to the island solely because of the airport.

"Hilton Head would not have the property values if it did not have the airport," Gildner said.

At the same time, the town and airport can come to good compromises on issues such as the tree removal, Schuler said. The mitigation plan is good example, he said: it will replant twice as many trees as are removed.

The group was founded last year just to ensure commercial service. The runway issue popped up and distracted from that original cause, Schuler said. The group from the beginning has been pushing for an update of the airport's master plan to determine what will be needed for the airport's future -- including what the future of the church will be.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I think we can sit down and have that conversation," he said. "We're not saying that community's irrelevant. It's a problem that has to be worked out."

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