Hilton Head should take over airport, county administrator says

Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic said Thursday “the county should transfer the control, management and decision-making of the airport” to the town of Hilton Head Island because of persistent disagreements between the county and town over airport issues.

Kubic decided to pursue the transfer Tuesday night after members of the Town Council and County Council met with consultants who presented an update on a plan for the airport’s future. Mayor Tom Peeples and the Town Council balked at the consultants’ recommendation to extend the airport’s runway by 1,100 feet — from the existing 4,300 feet to 5,400 feet. The extension would push the runway beyond the boundaries of airport property, possibly requiring Beach City Road on the north end or William Hilton Parkway on the south to be rerouted.

The extra 1,100 feet will be needed if the airport intends to accommodate the next generation of regional jets that airlines are expected to use, according to the consultants. Commercial airlines servicing the airport now use turboprop planes that can land and take off on shorter runways.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Peeples took strong exception to a 5,400-foot runway.

“1,100 feet, we cannot do,” he said wearily. Litigation to purchase private property for the longer runway could last for thirty years, he said.

Kubic, frustrated by Peeples’ reaction, said if the town would not consider the consultants’ recommendations, then work should stop on the master plan, which is seven months from completion and will cost $423,000. The county, town and Federal Aviation Administration are jointly paying for the plan. Neither town nor county officials could say immediately how much has already been spent for the plan.

“We don’t need to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of studies if we know there are things we’re not going to do,” Kubic said. “It makes no sense if we’re going to end up next October right back where we started.”

“Why throw money down the toilet?” he said.

Kubic’s suggestion to give the airport to the town came during a retreat Thursday with County Council members to review the county’s priorities for the future.

During a break in the meeting, Kubic told a Packet reporter: “I am going to prepare a recommendation to the County Council for some sort of transfer of ownership of the airport to the town . . . . The total responsibility for the outcome of that enterprise should rest with the town . . . . We (the county) will just be silent partners.”

Kubic said the county would still shoulder some airport operation costs. He did not know an exact amount yet.

County Council will decide whether to make Kubic’s recommendation one of their goals for the upcoming year.

Town Council members said they’re not opposed to considering the transfer, which both the Town and County Council would have to agree on.

If the town owned the airport, it would make operating it simpler, Kubic said. As an example of the difficulties the town and county have encountered under the current arrangement, Kubic cited the long-running negotiations over tree trimming at the airport.

Town control of the airport has been raised as a possibility before. In fact, Hilton Head Island’s proposed comprehensive plan, which Town Council will review March 24, includes a recommendation for the town to take control of the airport within 20 years.“The town manages all of its other assets on the island, why would it not manage the airport?” said Terence Ennis, a member of the town’s comprehensive plan committee.

But town council members and town manager Steve Riley are concerned about the airport’s finances.

“Of course (Kubic) wants to get rid of (the airport),” Riley said. “It’s like an albatross around his neck. It loses money.”

Historically, the airport has operated in the black, depending on several factors — the overall economy, the number of commercial airlines using the airport and the amount of capital investment made in any one year. But in the past 10 years, cash from operations has been heading downward, and the county has loaned the airport a total of about $1.6 million to cover operations. The airport also owes the county about $1.7 million for hangars built there.

Riley and some Town Council members said it would be difficult to cover the airport’s shortfall without raising taxes. Ennis believes the airport could make more money if it were better managed, but several members of the town and county councils members say the airport’s revenues will continue to falter without a longer runway.

The next installment of the master plan will offer alternatives to extending the runway to 5,400 feet. Those could include lengthening the runway but keeping it within airport boundaries, consultants said. The Town Council is not opposed to limited extension, although an ordinance currently forbids it, Riley said.

“If somebody can show us good data and good reason to lengthen it, then we can change this ordinance,” Riley said.

Some members of the two councils want to wait to consider transferring ownership of the airport until the master plan is complete and they understand all the options for what can be done at the airport.

The county and town have quarreled for years over the airport — a problem caused in part by too much bureaucracy, Riley and Kubic both say.