Mystery no longer surrounds the arrival date of new Joint Strike Fighter jets at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
But the exact flight path of the F-35B in the skies above Beaufort County remains unknown to the public, leaving some real estate agents, residents and business owners wondering how or if they'll be affected by noise and by development restrictions.
Plans to create a new Air Installation Compatible Use Zone -- the buffer zone around the air station designated for potential crashes and high jet noise -- were announced by air station officials in April 2012. The new AICUZ, which recommends development restrictions to prevent large populations of people within the zone, was expected to be released later that year. Nearly two years later, no new AICUZ maps have been revealed.
Air station officials at a Feb. 11 meeting of the Lady's Island Business Professionals Association said the new AICUZ would be unveiled by the end of March at a public meeting, before the June arrival of VMFAT-501, the first F-35B training squadron, which will start training in October.
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An exact date for the public meeting has not been set, but it is expected to be held in the second half of March, air station public affairs officer Capt. Jordan Cochran said Friday.
SOME DETAILS REVEALED
The new AICUZ will be derived from an alternative plan outlined in a 2010 environmental impact study commissioned by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps for F-35Bs based on the East Coast, air station community plans and liaison director Jason Mann said.
That alternative zone is little changed from the current AICUZ, with the most notable change being the elimination of two long noise corridors -- one to the southwest toward Lemon Island, and one to the northeast toward the Combahee River.
Although those areas are eliminated, the new zone will be wider than the current version and contain 203 more acres.
The new AICUZ will also include 2,599 acres, almost twice the current area, where noise levels could reach 85 decibels or higher. But virtually all of that land will be on base. Only 198 acres, an area occupied by 10 people, would be off the base in the 85-decibel range.
The 2010 study measures the F-35 at almost exactly the same noise level as the F-18 Hornets currently flown at the air station. However, that study was based on tests of the F-35A in California. No noise study of the F-35B, the Marines' variant which has vertical takeoff and landing capability, has been released yet, according to Office of Marine Corps Communication Capt. Richard Ulsh.
Short takeoffs would generate the most noise, at 125 decibels, but air station officials have said that 70 percent of the base's flight program would be conventional takeoffs, which generate the same amount of noise -- 110 decibels -- as the F-18, according to the 2010 study.
It's not just the public that has not seen the new AICUZ map yet.
Beaufort County Councilman Brian Flewelling, chairman of the county's Natural Resources Committee, said no one from county staff has seen it, either.
County planning director Tony Criscitello said the county will have no input in its design, but Flewelling said the county might have some input after it's released. Council must review and approve the new AICUZ. The council might attempt to seek minor variances from the Marine Corps but would not seek sweeping changes, he said.
"The maps are scientifically based," Flewelling said. "To me, the zones are not negotiable."
Flewelling cited Beaufort Liquidation's outdoor flea market, already inside a restricted-use zone because of high noise levels, as the sort of discussion the county would enter.
Beaufort Liquidation owner Jeff Lowe and his attorney, David Tedder, asked for a zoning amendment in January that would have allowed the outdoor flea market outside the store on Parker Drive to continue operating. The weekend flea market, across Trask Parkway from the air station, is prohibited under current AICUZ rules.
Negotiations on the zoning amendment continue. Attempts to reach Lowe and Tedder for comment were unsuccessful.
Pre-existing businesses drawn into new AICUZ zones would be allowed to continue, similar to how the Highway 21 Drive-In was when the old maps were created, Flewelling said. If a business grandfathered into the zone stopped operating, it would have to get a variance before it could reopen, he added.
Typical AICUZ rules can apply to major features and operations, such as building heights and outdoor operations. They also can affect seemingly small details, as in the prohibition of mail slots on homes inside the zone. The rules were outlined in a Joint Land Use Study completed in 2004.
Those restrictions don't affect one of the larger business interests along the Trask Parkway corridor, the Beaufort Commerce Park, said Lowcountry Economic Alliance executive director Kim Statler. Statler said the AICUZ limits the height of the buildings at the commerce park and prohibits companies from storing chemicals outside, but neither is a problem when trying to lure businesses to the county.
"We've never had an issue with it. We've always been compatible with it," she said. "I'm not anticipating a problem with the new one."
The lack of information on the new AICUZ hasn't damped real estate sales, several local agents said, but questions about jet noise are frequent. Property buyers in the AICUZ have to sign disclosure agreements that say they understand the zone's restrictions.
"Only a few people have balked because of (the jet noise)," said Cora Bett Thomas agent Eric Gnau. "People aren't familiar with it. It's a fear of the unknown."
Lowcountry Real Estate agent Edward Dukes said Realtors showing properties still use the current AICUZ maps, but he didn't think the new ones would deviate much from the old.
"Nobody knows what they'll look like for sure, but the assumption is that it won't look too terribly different," he said.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.