Hilton Head residents continue objections to airport expansion

tbarton@islandpacket.comJune 14, 2012 

A group of homeowners who oppose the expansion of the Hilton Head Island Airport have no intention of quieting down, despite plans by Beaufort County to move ahead with the project.

Ronald Smetek, a homeowner who now sits on the county advisory board overseeing the airport, said the Palmetto Hall residents will fight the master plan "until the right kind of decisions are made."

"We're not against the airport. We're against them doing something that makes no good sense from a fiscal and aviation-operations point of view," Smetek said. He was appointed to the Beaufort County Airports Board about three months ago.

Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head councils adopted a master plan in October 2010 that calls for a two-phased extension of the 4,300-foot runway to 5,400 feet. The work is designed to ensure the future of commercial and private air service on the island. The first phase calls for a 700-foot extension.

Airport officials say Hilton Head has the shortest runway for commercial service in the continental U.S.

The Federal Aviation Administration -- which would pay for most of the improvements with money from user fees and taxes on items such as airline fares, air freight and aviation fuel -- approved the plan last fall.

Smetek argues the extension will not improve commercial service and will cost county, state and federal taxpayers too much.

The homeowners group also argues a 2006 estimate of the airport's economic impact is vastly inflated.

The S.C. Department of Commerce's Division of Aeronautics commissioned the study, prepared by airport consulting firm Wilbur Smith Associates, to document how much South Carolina airports contribute to the state's economy. The study determined the Hilton Head facility had a total economic impact of $81.8 million annually.

The residents, however, claim a more comprehensive analysis by Palmetto Hall resident Bob Wallhaus puts the airport's actual impact at only $26.2 million. A resume provided by Wallhaus, who has a doctorate in industrial engineering, does not indicate he has an aviation or economics background.

During a meeting of the airports board Thursday afternoon, most board members gave the Wallhaus study little weight.

Chairman Joe Mazzei argued the 2006 study was done as a broad overview of the state's aviation industry and was not intended to justify expanding the airport. The FAA mandates a separate economic and cost-benefit analysis for the runway expansion, a study which is under way.

Preliminary results of that analysis will be shared at a public meeting from 5 to 8 p.m. June 27 at the Hilton Head Island library, 11 Beach City Road.

"(The FAA) sets the standard. There's a process you have to follow," Mazzei said. "You can't just sit down and make this stuff up. ... The numbers will come out."

Smetek and Wallhaus, however, argue the $81.8 million figure has often been used to justify and promote airport expansion and greatly exaggerates the benefits for doing so.

Wallhaus argues his study has more veracity because it uses more conservative estimates on direct and ancillary spending related to airport operations, based on surveys of pilots, airport employees, island visitors and an examination of airport financial records. He also disputes the airport significantly boosts island real estate sales.

"There are a number of assumptions in the S.C. study that don't apply to our airport," Smetek said. "If we are going to incur a large cost to extend the runway, we need to know what the actual benefits are to the local economy."

Related content

  1. FAA Airport Improvement Program
  2. Hilton Head Island Airport Master Plan Update
  3. Hilton Head asks county to consider noise wall, berm at island airport: June 11, 2012
  4. Airport expansion may force Hilton Head charity to find new home: May 7, 2012

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