Saturday, November 26, 2016
Flying W Airport in Medford, New Jersey, targeted for 450-home development
MEDFORD — For over five decades, the Flying W Airport has been a haven for aviation enthusiasts who feel at home in the skies.
But the future of the airport on Fostertown Road appears to be up in the air, as the tiny concrete airstrip and its substantial acreage are being targeted for transformation into a large housing development that would help satisfy the township's affordable housing requirements for most of the next decade.
No sale of the airport and its 150-plus acres has been announced, but a proposed 450-unit development at the property was part of a settlement agreement negotiated by Medford and the Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based affordable housing advocate.
The agreement, which was approved by the Township Council on Nov. 15, calls for the development of 298 affordable homes and apartments by 2025. Ninety of the affordable units are expected to be located within the future Flying W development, according to the agreement.
The airport's owner, John Cave, declined to speak in detail about any future plans. He insisted that no deal has been finalized to develop the property, which straddles the Lumberton border.
"We have no agreement with the township. It's way early," Cave said last week. "This is a long, long way off."
Township officials said a final agreement with the owners must still be negotiated, but the mayor and solicitor said the owners informed them of their intention to shutter the airport.
"The landowner approached us and indicated to us they would like to close the airport and redevelop the property," Mayor Jeff Beenstock said last week. "That's their prerogative. It's their property, and they have the right to do with it what they choose."
The airport has become a fixture since it was created in 1964 by William Whitesell, a former airline pilot who bought the former farm in 1961.
The facility, which includes a restaurant, banquet room, motel and airplane-shaped swimming pool, has enjoyed a rich history and in its heyday hosted many celebrities. The late Sally Starr, a former country singer and television cartoon show host, even worked there as event director for a short time in the early 1990s.
The airport has also had a long history of owners and financial troubles, beginning with Whitesell, who was forced to close and sell it in 1972 due to a bankruptcy. The property reopened in 1984 and was sold several more times until Cave purchased it in 1996 for $2 million.
A total of 105 aircraft are based at the airport, including 96 single-engine planes, six multi-engine planes and three helicopters, according to Federal Aviation Administration operations data.
The runway is too small for most commercial fights, but it's one of the state's most popular destinations for recreational fliers.
"It's a popular place," said Mike Johnson, a mechanic at the helicopter school on-site. "It gives you a place to fly into, and it's convenient because you don't need a car. You've got food, entertainment and lodging in one place."
Cave, who has invested in numerous repairs, renovations and upgrades at the airport during his 20 years as owner, confirmed that there have been discussions about development at the site, but he declined to say if either a developer or the municipality had made an offer to buy the land.
"I listen to everything in front of me," Cave said. "Information costs nothing."
Lumberton officials also reported having a meeting with the owners to discuss ideas for potential development on the Lumberton portion of the property, which is where the restaurant and banquet hall are.
"They've only had one preliminary meeting with the owners on their development plans or ideas they're thinking of, but there has been no other talks," Lumberton Township Administrator Brandon Umba said last week. "They just wanted to spitball ideas to us."
Medford officials said Cave and his son indicated that their intention was to keep the restaurant and pool, which is on the Lumberton side. It was not clear if additional homes would be built on that side.
Medford's agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center specifies that 360 market-rate homes and 90 affordable units would rise on its side of the airport property. However, it also said that development was still subject to negotiations, and that the township reserved the right to substitute another site for the Flying W project provided it offers a realistic opportunity for 90 more affordable units.
The other 208 affordable units specified in the agreement would be divided among three other planned developments in town.
One project, Hartford Square, is planned at Route 70 and Hartford Road and would consist solely of 70 affordable homes for low-income seniors, veterans and disabled residents.
A second development would be built around the Hartford Square community and would consist of a mix of 174 market-rate single-family homes and townhouses and 48 affordable apartments.
The third development, Arc Wheeler, is proposed off Evesboro Road near the Evesham border and would include 210 market-rate homes and 90 affordable units.
The plan is still subject to Superior Court approval due to the court takeover of affordable housing compliance from the state Council on Affordable Housing. The takeover stemmed from COAH's failure to craft rules and quotas for how many low- and moderate-income homes towns must zone and plan for.
Municipalities need housing plans certified by the court to be protected from lawsuits by developers and nonprofits forcing them to approve low-income housing if a judge decides there isn't adequate housing available or planned.
Since the high court's order, hundreds of towns have been involved in litigation over the number of affordable units they need, with Fair Share acting as an intervener.
Beenstock said he believes that the township's housing plan is a sound one, and that redeveloping the airport as residential housing is a "legitimate purpose" and would help satisfy the legal requirement to provide adequate affordable housing.
Many other towns have struggled with the same mandate, with some rehabbing or buying existing homes and then subsidizing them as affordable units.
"What we tried to do was satisfy our obligation under the law in the least intrusive manner we could. I think we've done that with this plan," Beenstock said.
The township also plans to increase the capacity of its sewer plant to accommodate the additional homes being planned. However, the mayor said those upgrades would be funded by the eventual Flying W developer.
Beenstock said "time would tell" if the loss of the airport would be a disappointment.
"I'm not a pilot myself, but my wife's father was, and he has fond memories of that airport," he said. "For me, it's a property whose owner is interested in redevelopment that's a legitimate purpose."
Johnson said the helicopter school has been at Flying W for at least 10 years. If the owners do close, he guessed that they might relocate to nearby South Jersey Regional Airport, less than 3 miles away in Lumberton. Many of the aircraft owners at Flying W would also likely end up at that airfield, which is owned by the state but operated by Cave.
Red Lion Airport in Southampton is another nearby destination where planes might relocate, Johnson said.
"Nobody is going to like it if it closes," Mike Johnson said. "It's a small community here; we all know each other and help each other out. Some of us would end up going separate ways."
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Posted by Kathryn on 6:32:00 PM