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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 16:12

Macon Airport runway extension faces more questions

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Macon County Airport Authority members are confident their application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward, but the project may still face significant procedural hurdles.

The airport is planning a 600-foot extension of its runway. In order to re-route a creek in its path, it needs approval from the Army Corp to impact five acres of wetlands and 800 linear feet of stream. The airport authority applied for a permit last fall, but in early January, Army Corp regulatory specialist Lori Beckwith put the project on hold.

At an airport authority meeting last week (Feb. 23), the project’s engineer, Eric Rysdon of W.K. Dickson, said he had addressed the concerns posed by the Army Corps.

Beckwith’s letter informed the authority that its permit application could not be reviewed because it failed to address a number of concerns raised by everyone from federal agencies to private citizens concerned about its impact. The letter also said the Environmental Assessment included in the application was out of date and that the information provided was “inadequate for us to evaluate the proposed project” and assess its impacts.

The authority was given 30 days to respond. In the letter, Beckwith emphasized the volume of public comment that had poured in — 37 letters and emails, most of them against the runway extension. She also stressed the importance of responding specifically to concerns raised by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

While the authority said last week that it had responded to Beckwith’s concerns with a report prepared by Rysdon, the report itself was not been made available for public review.

The authority’s attorney, Franklin Mayor Joe Collins, released a statement saying the report would remain private until Beckwith returns from personal leave on March 9.

“The Authority feels it inappropriate to make public the report until such time as Ms. Beckwith has had the opportunity to review it. The report is very positive and favorable to the project, and the Authority is anxious for its public release at the earliest appropriate time,” Collins’ letter read.

The future of the runway extension project hinges on the Army Corp allowing the airport to re-route the stream.

Under the Clean Water Act, a project must show that it is choosing the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

Beckwith’s letter asked the Macon County Airport Authority to address all the concerns expressed by entities opposed to the project, but she also asked for a clarification of the project’s purpose.

“In addition to responding to the comments detailed in this letter, please describe any off-site alternatives you considered and explain why these are or are not practicable and clarify the applicant’s main purpose for the project (safety or economic development) and any secondary purpose,” the letter stated.

The airport authority has received heavy criticism for the way it has shared information about the runway expansion project with the public.

Olga Pader, a member of the Save Iotla Valley group, has been an outspoken critic of the project and sees Beckwith’s concerns as a justification of the criticism expressed by the Iotla community.

“What’s interesting to me is the questions the Army Corps of Engineers were asking are similar to the questions we as citizens have been asking all along,” Pader said.

Pader believes the underlying motivation for the runway extension is a misguided economic development program that would adversely affect the Iotla Valley.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s expressed concerns that “multiple federally threatened and endangered species and federally designated critical habitats” downstream of the project could be affected. Meanwhile, the Cherokee voiced concern that the impacts to the ancestral graves and the presence of a historic Cherokee trading path were not properly evaluated.

Should the permit get rejected, the runway project may need to pursue an Environmental Impact Study, a much longer procedural process that could involve more federal oversight and public hearing requirements as it moves forward.

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