Sunday rally intended to add opposition to Hilton Head runway extension

Members of the native-island community and Baygall, Palmetto Hall and Port Royal property owners will rally at 1 p.m. Sunday under the big oak tree at St. James Baptist Church to protest plans to extend the runway and cut trees at the Hilton Head Island Airport.

The church on Beach City Road is home to a native-island congregation that worships under the airport's flight path.

Charles Young, chairman and deacon at St. James, said the rally is intended to convince the wider community to oppose runway extension and tree removal, too.

"This is to remind the community of how precious this place is to us and how serious we are about standing up for it," Young said.

St. James dates back to about 1860 and is next to a planned educational and interpretive park at Mitchelville, the site of the nation's first freed-slave village.

Young said runway extension -- and the plane noise it could bring -- would encroach too much on the church, lower the quality of life and real estate values of surrounding property owners, and deter tourists from visiting the Mitchelville park.

He also said expansion is too costly to taxpayers.

County airports manager Paul Andres, however, said no tax increase has been recommended to pay for the runway extension.

Beaufort County Council and Hilton Head Town Council in October approved a 20-year master plan to guide development of the county-owned airport. It calls for extending the 4,300-foot runway in two phases to 5,400 feet. Construction would require rerouting Beach City Road and buying land around the runway.

The extension is expected to cost about $20 million, with as much as 95 percent coming from federal funds. The county and state would split the rest. Andres said a per-ticket charge to the airlines is recommended to pay for the county's 2.5 percent share of the project.

Studies by consultants hired by the county and town indicate the current runway and tree obstructions force airlines to fly planes at less than capacity, making routes less profitable and, thus, less likely to continue. Runway extension also would benefit general aviation traffic and safety, according to the studies.

St. James members and others argue commercial carriers base decisions on market factors, not runway length, and demand does not justify extension.