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Island council blasts SC House, Senate airport proposals

Town of Hilton Head Island officials bristled Tuesday over two bills introduced in the S.C. House and Senate that would limit the town and county's ability to adopt and enforce regulations to the county-owned island airport.

Bills H3918 and S707 would relocate the Division of Aeronautics under the S.C. Department of Transportation and increase the division's authority to regulate land use and remove safety hazards around the airport.

Town officials said it looks unlikely either bill will pass this legislative session, but worry the legislation could gain momentum next year. Both bills are sitting in committee, with about two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

"This would pre-empt us and other municipal bodies in the state from managing what we'd like to do with our island," said assistant town manager Greg DeLocah.

Town staff said the bill is part of an effort by state officials to cut expenses by reducing duplication in services. It was unclear how much the state would save by the proposed restructuring.

Under the bills, the state Aeronautics Division would have greater statutory power and duties, including adopting rules and regulations in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration over public safety, layout, construction, operations and use of all airports. The division would have the authority to remove or remedy any "imminent or foreseeable hazard" that would adversely affect takeoff, landing, approach and maneuvering of aircraft -- including trees and runway length -- without local approval.

Currently, the division does not have that authority.

Such a change would create a conflict with existing town ordinances that limit the runway's length to 5,000 feet and the removal of trees.

The bills would also remove an exemption for airports owned by government agencies from regulations enacted by the division and give it the authority to close an airport runway, limiting local control over such matters.

"As a matter of principle, (these bills) move Home Rule toward Columbia," said Ward 2 Councilmam Bill Harkins.

Mayor Drew Laughlin said he is "deeply, philosophically opposed" to any effort to limit the town's authority.

Council members said they plan to contact the island's representatives in the House and Senate to voice their concerns.

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