Editorials

Local airport decisions belong at the local level

At this point, who could blame local leaders if they wanted someone else to make decisions about Hilton Head Island Airport?

Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island elected leaders are being pummeled on all sides.

They get it from those who want the airport runway extended and those who don't. They are inundated with "facts" that prove that doomsday is here, no matter what they decide.

They are feeling heat from the airport's sole commercial provider, which needs trees in the flight path removed so it can put more passengers aboard each plane.

They are being blasted because it has taken to long to get those trees removed or trimmed.

At the same time, they are being challenged in court on the legality of how it came to the conclusion to remove trees.

Under these circumstances, wouldn't it be a relief to pass those headaches off to the state Division of Aeronautics?

Fortunately, that does not seem to be the sentiment, even though it could happen under bills introduced this month in the state General Assembly. The bills would move the state Division of Aeronautics from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Transportation. But both the House and Senate versions, now assigned to committees, would also give the Division of Aeronautics new authority over local airports statewide.

It would give the state the power to adopt rules and regulations in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration over public safety, layout, construction, operations and use of all airports. The state would gain 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.

Hilton Head Island Airport -- which has been controversial for decades -- is the poster child of exactly why this legislation is bad public policy.

It is exactly because these issues are so hotly debated locally that the decisions on the local airport belong with local leaders.

Citizens who want the airport expanded deserve to vote for those who make that decision.

Citizens who want the airport closed deserve to vote for those who make that decision.

In order for local leaders to be held accountable by voters, they must have the power to make local decisions.

Only local leaders can feel the pulse of the community and sort out what is best for neighbors of the airport and the community at-large.

Citizens can help them discern between the general interests of the community and the special interests that may try to influence policy. Citizen influence would wane if the decisions were taken to Columbia.

Airports and their related issues of noise, safety and economic development are not uniform statewide. Local standards on development and quality of life vary from town to town. The state should insert its control only on issues that are the same in communities statewide.

South Carolina has already wrestled with this problem. In the 1970s, voters approved a constitutional change and the legislature enacted the Home Rule Act that moved more local decisions to the local level. Home Rule is rooted in the one-man, one-vote principle that puts local accountability where it belongs -- on the backs of local leaders who are hired and fired by local voters.

Town of Hilton Head Island leaders have expressed philosophical problems with the state controlling the airport, as proposed in the new legislation. It is precisely because local people care so deeply about the airport that its control belongs here, no matter how hot the debate gets.

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