Friday, November 18, 2011

Florida: Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller says visit to look at Immokalee Regional Airport also was due to expansion plan - VIDEO

NAPLES — Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller went on the Immokalee Regional Airport property last month because a tenant of the airport contacted her and said he felt he was being mistreated.

But in an interview with Naples Daily News Editorial Page Editor Jeff Lytle this week, Hiller said she also went there at airport tenant Stephen Fletcher's request because she was concerned about the airport authority's "grandiose plans" for expansion at the airport.

That comment stems from a September Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting during which Hiller questioned Collier County airports Executive Director Chris Curry about his plans to rehabilitate runway 927 at the Immokalee Airport.

"The two runways at Immokalee have been identified as being in poor condition," Curry told the countywide transportation planning agency Sept. 9, saying that extending the runway 927 from 5,000 feet to 7,000 feet had been the authority's previous No. 1 project.

Curry said the Immokalee Airport has the most opportunities for expansion of any of the county's three airports — the others are near Marco Island and in Everglades City. He said Immokalee had potential to attract cargo business.

Hiller pointed out that the airport's plans, which include purchasing more than 100 acres near the airport, overlap with the Immokalee Master Plan, which the Collier County Commission is to consider next month for approval. But what concerned Hiller about the plan is that it calls for the county to rezone agricultural land and then have the government buy it at the rezoned value.

Land near the airport is owned by a Barron Collier company. Agricultural land is less expensive to buy than if the zoning were changed.

"If you know we need the land, why aren't we buying it as agricultural?" she asked at the MPO meeting in September. "What you're doing, by having this in the Immokalee Master Plan and changing the zoning — you're creating value (for) the land and costing the taxpayers more."

Curry said at the meeting that his plan called for the project to be paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration and said property is purchased at its appraised value.

Hiller pointed out that the property is appraised as agricultural land.

"Through the master plan, it is being zoned for a future acquisition," she said. "And I don't care if the project is being funded by county, state or federal dollars, it is still public money."

Hiller didn't respond this week to Daily News requests for additional comments.

Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said Friday he isn't concerned about the Immokalee Airport expansion project and said it will be paid for with FAA grants, which will not place an undue burden on county government.

"This is going to provide an opportunity to attract more business to the airport," he said. "The Seminole Casino will be flying in jets, and has flown in jets. We can't let those runways deteriorate."

Coyle said Hiller doesn't choose to acknowledge the facts of what has been happening and instead chooses to pursue a vendetta against the Barron Collier Co.

Hiller and District 5 commission candidate Tim Nance attracted attention last month for traveling around the airport property without authorization, and Nance's sport utility vehicle was seen violating airport rules and speed limits, according to an airport report.

In a news release this week, Nance said those allegations are false.

"My presence and the presence of my guests on airport property was entirely legal and appropriate, and conducted under the direct supervision of, and as guests of, a licensed pilot and long-term tenant of the Immokalee airport, Stephen Fletcher," he wrote. "Allegations published that I was speeding, failed to stop and exercise due caution while at runway crossings, and failed to stop after being requested to do so, are false."

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