Land-use issues remain an obstacle for airports

 - November 27, 2007, 8:51 AM

Airport encroachment and land use might be the next big issue beyond user fees, said Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airports, at the American Association of Airport Executives General Aviation Issues Conference in Naples, Fla., recently. For good or bad, “development always follows airports,” he added.

The problem, noted National Association of State Aviation Officials president and CEO Henry Ogrodzinski, is that “your airport is in jeopardy.” That’s because the FAA lacks teeth when it comes to preventing structures that are hazardous to air safety. “The FAA can’t prohibit buildings; it can only advise that a structure is a hazard,” pointed out Kaplan Kirsch and Rockwell partner Daniel Reimer.

According to Reimer, airport encroachment “is actually worse than closure,” since the airport remains open but is operationally diminished. Encroachment, he said, can be vertical or lateral.

The Sunroad building near San Diego Montgomery Field that was being built two stories higher than the FAA deemed safe to air traffic is a textbook case of vertical encroachment. Even though the FAA said the building’s height was a hazard to air safety, the developer was still able to get the building zoned for the full height of 180 feet. Sunroad had even erected the complete structure before being forced by an AOPA-filed lawsuit to remove the top 20 feet of the office tower.

Another vertical encroachment issue arose last month when the developer of the Xanadu entertainment complex in northern New Jersey proposed a nearly 400-foot Ferris wheel 3.5 miles from Teterboro Airport. The FAA told the developer that any structure more than 190 feet high would interfere with air safety. Fortunately, the developer is heeding the FAA’s advice, though it’s not legally bound to do so.

Lateral encroachment usually entails a building that interferes with the runway clearways and includes such things as “building a day care center at the end of a runway,” Reimer said. Land abutting airports is usually zoned light industrial, but zoning alone will not prevent encroachment, he added.

The most prevalent sources of land-use problems are residential developments that are too close to the airport but are not necessarily safety hazards. What ends up happening is that residents, who knowingly buy property near an airport, complain about the airport noise, which typically leads to voluntary or mandated curfews and restrictions for aircraft operators.

“I’m not sure that fighting these battles airport by airport is the right way,” Reimer said. “Something needs to happen on a federal level,” with respect to land use around airports.

NATA vice president of government and industry affairs Eric Byer suggested that Congress grant the FAA the authority to prevent incompatible land use and eliminate encroachment. “The FAA needs more strength” for land-use issues, he concluded.