PENSACOLA, FL (AP) The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave approval Sept. 15 for construction of what is expected to be the nation’s first new airport since Sept. 11, 2001 — the Bay County International Airport in Panama City.
The FAA’s nod to the plan to relocate the airport to 4,000 acres donated by the St. Joe Co., a giant real-estate developer founded by the duPont family in the 1930s as a paper company and now Florida’s largest private land owner with approximately 800,000 acres of undeveloped Panhandle land, received praise from Gov. Jeb Bush and the state’s senators, but was criticized by a national environmental group.
“Relocating the airport expands economic development and tourism in the region and protects thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive lands in the Florida Panhandle,” Bush said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-FL, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, also praised the plan, calling it an important step for economic development in the region.
But the New York-based nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council blasted the approval of the plan, which it said would spur destructive growth.
“The FAA plan would fleece taxpayers to build an airport to nowhere,” Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney for the group, said in a statement.
The council and 12 state conservation organizations asked the FAA in July to reconsider its environmental impact statement approving the project.
The council group lists the region as one of 12 most endangered natural places in America. It sees the airport as the first step toward massive development.
Advocates for the new airport have said it is a better environmental alternative than extending runways into St. Andrews Bay.
The FAA’s Record of Decision approving the airport’s relocation will allow the project to qualify for federal Airport Improvement Program funding and is the most significant step to date in the eight years since the project was first proposed, said Randy Curtis, executive director of the Bay County International Airport.
Curtis said the next steps include permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, selling the exiting airport, financing construction of the $312-million new airport and completion of the new airport design. Construction is expected to begin in March 2007 and the new airport is scheduled to open before the end of 2009, he said.
Although the initial design calls for the airport to encompass about 1,300 acres, it will have room to expand throughout the 4,000-acre site — an area roughly the size of Atlanta’s airport.
“Where we are located today is on St. Andrew’s Bay and surrounded by a residential area. We had been trying for many, many years to expand, but because of the constraints the only option would have been to fill in the bottom of the bay,” Curtis said. “Several agencies suggested we look at relocating the airport. We had been working on that quite some time before we approached St. Joe Co.”
The St. Joe Company, which owns 78,000 undeveloped acres surrounding the airport site, has said that while it will benefit from the new airport it did not initiate the project. St. Joe spokesman Jerry Ray has said the new airport will help to bring tourists and property buyers from outside the region to the company’s Panhandle developments.