Sunday, November 5, 2017

Green Cove Springs, Florida: Clay County regional airport concept divides county, city officials

GREEN COVE SPRINGS | Whether plans take flight for a potential regional airport in Green Cove Springs will be determined by a ongoing feasibility study commissioned by the owners of Reynolds Industrial Park, which already has a small private airpark.

The proposed project already hit some turbulence and it hasn’t even gotten off the ground. The Clay County Commission and Green Cove Springs City Council have clashed over the proposal.

Encompassing 1,700 acres, the industrial park complex including Reynolds Airpark lies within the Green Cove Springs city limits. The airpark currently has a 5,000-foot asphalt runway deemed in poor condition by federal aviation authorities.

Clay County Port Inc., a private corporation, owns the industrial park and is paying for the feasibility study. The airpark currently lists nine aircraft based there: four helicopters, three multi-engine aircraft, one jet and one single-engine plane.

As a regional airport, it potentially could serve private and cargo jets as well as recreational aircraft like those served by facilities in Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The airpark runway would have to be repaired and extended, and undergo other improvements to convert it into a regional airport, county officials said.

Repeated attempts to talk to Ted McGowan, port executive director and industrial park manager, were unsuccessful.

The industrial park used to be the Lee Naval Air Station. The county has explored the idea of a regional airport there on-and-off for 30 years – most recently in 2001. Each time the idea was abandoned as not feasible.

Green Cove Springs land-use regulations preclude a regional airport at the site. City Council would have to change those regulations for the airport project to take off.

City leaders – at least for now – aren’t inclined to oblige, citing outspoken opposition from numerous residents, especially those living near the airpark who are concerned about noise, traffic, and lower property values if it becomes a regional airport.

“Our position is we don’t really know what the port wants to do,” Mayor Mitch Timberlake said, noting there’s been no explanation about the type and size of aircraft, or number and frequency of flights that would use the facility.

The council wants to hear directly the port what it wants to do with the airpark, Timberlake said.

“Our reaction as a council, I think, was generally if it is a low volume of flights, small aircraft, then we are probably amenable to doing something,” he said.

“If it is high volume, hundreds if not thousands of flights a day, then we have a whole other issue because it’s going to have a dramatic impact on property values, the residents and the city,” Timberlake said.

Timberlake and other council members bristle the city has been left out of discussions about the idea.

However, the proposal has been pitched – at least informally – to some county commissioners including Chairman Wayne Bolla, who backs the idea.

“Frankly, we were taken aback. We were surprised and disappointed that a county commissioner outside of this district is pushing for them to put a regional airport there,” Timberlake said.

Bolla said he “didn’t want to start a lot of negotiations with the city until we were fairly sure we had a viable option here.”

City leaders say it’s disrespect – plain and simple.

The breach of governmental etiquette along with the council’s perception of past commission slights fuels contention between the two entities about the airport issue. The dispute erupted publicly during the July 25 commission meeting and the tension lingers.

Bolla said a regional airport would be a major opportunity for economic development benefiting the whole county. He envisions a facility being able to accommodate a 737 jet as well as smaller corporate or recreational aircraft.

It also would complement existing rail, water and road routes as well as the First Coast Expressway under construction through Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties to make Clay a transportation hub, according to Bolla and county Commissioner Gayward Hendry, who also supports the idea.

Bolla estimates the feasibility study could be done by the middle of 2018 based on information from McGowan. It should show whether a new regional airport is needed, how much it could cost and whether it’s worth the price.

“What I envision is something like an airport authority who would run the airport,” said Bolla, a private pilot. As an example, he cited Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, which owned by the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.

“I see this as a major industrial development mode for us. It will give us an in with the aviation sector that we don’t presently have,” Bolla said.

With the expressway and a new Shands Bridge going in to connect Clay and St. Johns counties, a Green Cove Springs airport “should open up the whole southern end of St. Johns County to us to draw from for people coming to work,” he said.

“It will also represent an executive type airport that’s available to St. Johns and Clay County. So I see a lot of benefits from that perspective,” said Bolla, who flies a small single-engine airplane.

Herlong Recreational Airport in Jacksonville is almost a 45-minute drive away from Orange Park. The Keystone Heights regional airport is roughly an hour’s drive from Orange Park, he said.

“Putting Green Cove Springs in play would give us an airport that pretty much the whole county could access in the northern part of the county,” Bolla said.

Bolla said he’s looking at the issue from a countywide perspective. The city has the perspective of a municipality, he said.

Timberlake said in his personal opinion, the county should be honest and transparent about the airport issue with the city.

“I do feel like they are trying to take advantage of a situation,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Cella, whose district includes Green Cove Springs, as well as commission Vice Chairwoman Diane Hutchings and Commissioner Gavin Rollins have said the support of the City Council and residents is crucial if the project is to go forward.

The commission as a whole hasn’t talked about the proposal since its July 25 meeting when McGowan gave a presentation about the proposal. At that time, Timberlake and Royal voiced city opposition and residents’ concerns.

Nothing has changed since then.

As a representative of that district, Cella said he sides with the city in the matter.

“Certainly, if they were to change their tune then I would have to listen to that as well,” Cella said.

He said his concerns include the cost to the county and city of establishing an airport authority to oversee operations of a regional airport. “It would be hard for me to imagine getting this thing off the ground would be 100 percent free for either the county or city,” said Cella, doubting the FAA would foot the whole bill.

But first, Cella said, the feasibility study must be completed and its results presented publicly to the City Council and County Commission — preferably during a joint meeting.

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