By Steve Cook
January 19, 2011
The board of supervisors has approved a proposed runway extension at Chesterfield County Airport, and the master plan has now been submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for its approval. That will be “quite a lengthy process,” said Arlene Salac, FAA spokesperson.
But, according to Will Davis, the county’s economic development director, it’s a process that’s worth the effort.
“Currently the airport is providing employment that pays $6.7 million in annual wages,” he said.
The airport’s total economic impact to the county is nearly $17 million. But when you factor in the businesses that move to Chesterfield, in part because of its airport, that impact is much higher, said Davis.
“The runway extension will provide a safer and more efficient operation to our critical aircraft.”
Tom Trudeau, airport manager, explained that recent changes in FAA safety regulations require longer runways for jet airplanes. Additionally, as a “reliever airport” for Richmond International, Chesterfield’s airport needs to offer comparable services to corporate aircraft operators.
“For instance, one of our based jets, a Gulfstream 200, can’t make it to the west coast from [Chesterfield County Airport], because our runway is too short for take-off when it’s fully fueled. It has to first fly from here to RIC to refuel,” said Trudeau.
As proposed, the extended runway will allow aircraft to land, be serviced and take off in Chesterfield, rather than having to fly into the much busier RIC. The extension is not just about garnering new business in the years to come, but also about keeping the operators who are currently using Chesterfield County Airport, said Trudeau.
But before any land is cleared or asphalt is laid, the FAA requires the county to conduct what is typically a 12- to 24-month environmental assessment. The county will contract with a company to conduct the assessment, Salac said, explaining that there are a number of hurdles that must be cleared, including the project being approved for funding by the FAA. If approved, the federal government will provide 95 percent of the estimated $13 million needed to complete the project, with the state providing 3 percent, and Chesterfield County, the remaining 2 percent, or approximately $260,000.
Only then will the county begin the process of acquiring the surrounding property needed to extend the runway to 6,300 feet. And that’s the part that has some area residents concerned, including Dr. Robert McEachern, pastor at Fair Havens Church. McEachern’s church is in the path of the runway extension and will have to be demolished if the project goes forward.
McEachern realizes his church is about the people and not the building. Even so, the 30-year-old structure “is the place where some of our members found Christ. It’s where some were baptized, where some were married or had funerals.”
And, while two years or more (the environmental assessment will begin in early fall) may be “quite a lengthy” period of time to some, to others it may not be nearly long enough.
“We have a lot to do,” McEachern said. “We have to find property to replace what we lose, and it has to be the right property that will accommodate our members. It can’t be right next door to another Baptist church.”
The pastor is also concerned as to whether the county will compensate the church for the funds needed to acquire another parcel of land and construct a new building. Davis insists the acquisition of land will be handled fairly.
“They will be offered the fair-market value,” he said, adding, “When you get into land acquisition, it can become emotional. The key is to see that everyone is treated fairly.”
But McEachern asked, “What does fairmarket value really mean? Will it include enough, for instance, to replace our sign out front? That alone cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
Fair Havens isn’t the only affected property owner. About 15 residences, plus another church, New Jerusalem, will be impacted to varying degrees. Sharon Womack and her husband, Randy, have lived next door to the airport for almost 12 years. A small portion of their 5.5-acre property will be needed to construct the runway extension. But her main concern is for Fair Havens Church, where she, her husband and their son have been members for seven years.
“As a member, this is devastating. We have lots of memories there. My son was baptized there this past Easter,” she said.
As a property owner, Womack says the loss of the land is not a big deal.
“I am more concerned about noise and safety factors. We’ve been told that this [the extension] will allow bigger planes to land here. Will that mean more noise?” she asked, adding that she also wants to be sure that the property owners are fairly compensated for their land.
“This will not be a land grab,” said Trudeau. “We will very much be working with these folks to come up with a way that works for both [the impacted property owners and the county].”
The process, Trudeau said, will involve the county hiring both an expert consultant in land acquisition as well as an independent appraiser. Asked about the possibility of land being acquired by eminent domain, Trudeau said he has never seen it come to that in the more than 20 years he has been in airport management.
McEachern, however, said he remembers when the airport was first built.
“Some of the church’s neighbors did indeed lose their land by eminent domain then.”
However, he is not against the expansion project itself.
“I want to talk to the folks at the county to see what we can do. I know God will take care of us.”
According to Davis, those impacted will have ample opportunity to talk about this. At least two public hearings conducted by the county, and one by the state, are a required part of the environmental assessment.
Womack says she and her husband will attend all such meetings, but said, “I believe this is already a done deal. When you’re talking about increased revenue for the county, who is going to listen to the little people?”
If all goes as planned, including the impacted property owners receiving compensation that they view as fair, the extension could prove to be a catalyst for future economic development in the area surrounding the airport.
“Look at the intersection of routes 288 and 10 [adjacent to the airport],” said Davis. “It’s a strategic gateway to economic development. How do we maximize that?”
The runway extension, he said, “could jumpstart an interest in support services and create demand for all types of services, such as hotels, restaurants, car rental agenciesÉ”
The bottom line, as Trudeau sees it, is this: “Airports are supposed to be a reflection of the community they support. No more, no less. If they don’t care for the community’s needs, that’s no good. If they get too big for the community they serve, they become a white elephant. And that’s no good either.”