Study: extending Hilton Head airport runway has no environmental impact

Local residents still have many questions, don't believe study results

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comApril 21, 2014 

Pat Turney, an engineer with Talbert, Bright & Ellington Inc., explains the diagrams for the runway extension alternatives to Marie Hartis of Hilton Head Island at the public hearing about the environmental impact of extending the runway of Hilton Head Airport the evening of April 21, 2014, at the Hilton Head Island Library on Hilton Head Island.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Delayna Earley Buy Photo

Extending the Hilton Head Island Airport runway -- a project that has garnered much opposition from local residents -- essentially will have no environmental impact, according to a study recently completed by the airport.

However, many residents say they find that hard to believe.

"They get an A-plus for understatement," said Dee Phillips, a resident of Palmetto Hall Plantation Club, which is across Beach City Road from the airport. "You can't do a comprehensive report of what will be a pretty significant project and say there are no negative impacts."

About 125 residents from the Hilton Head community attended Monday's meeting at the Hilton Head Branch of the Beaufort County Library. The meeting gave information about the environmental assessment of the runway extension and improvements and offered community members a chance to give feedback.

Many residents continue to express concerns about increasing noise, tree removal, lowered property values and infringement on the Mitchelville community and history that could result from the extension.

But the study showed the potential impact for many of those categories as "none."

It showed no impact on air quality, migratory birds and wildlife, or noise, for instance.

"It does not appear there are any real negative environmental impacts, and the Federal Aviation Administration's preliminary reviews of the study agree with that," Beaufort County airports director Jon Rembold said.

An environmental study of the proposed project is mandated by the FAA before construction can begin, he said.

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 first phase -- what the environmental study analyzed -- calls for a 700-foot extension.

Having a longer runway and a more gradual slope for planes to take off and land, achieved by clearing trees and buildings in the immediate area, allows the planes to carry more weight in passengers and fuel, according to Rembold.

These changes are meant to ensure the future of commercial and private air service on the island and make it more marketable, he said.

Some residents agreed that it could help improve the economy.

"You just have to believe what they are telling you is true," Port Royal Plantation resident Don Moore said. "If they can get it done and done with care, it could be a good thing."

Yet most feel the county, town and airport have not shown that the extension is absolutely necessary or will achieve the desired economic boost.

Palmetto Hall resident Bryce Young said many feel this project will not greatly affect commercial use, but is being done for those who fly on private and corporate jets.

"We're going to remove trees, have noise pollution and dropping property values, and for what, more corporate jets?" Young said. "I don't think there is enough evidence of the positives to outweigh the negatives that will have a huge environmental impact."

Rembold said all comments are reviewed and significant questions raised could prompt further study. All written comments should be submitted to him at the airport by May 5.

If the FAA -- which would pay for most of the roughly $10 million project -- approves the environmental study, the next stage would be to develop a full engineering design. Construction could then begin in early 2016.

"It's a sensitive project, and that makes it a big project," Rembold said. "But I am truly convinced that we can all be good neighbors and get along."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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