THE STAFFORD County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing April 8 on the Stafford Regional Airport Planning Area. This is one of the most significant and far-reaching land-use decisions to come before the county in decades.
A recommendation made by the Stafford Airport Committee in 1986 was that “work should immediately begin on a comprehensive review of both new zoning ordinances and the comprehensive plan for the purpose of establishing special conservation zones, buffering, etc., so that any subsequent airport investments and the citizens of the county shall be protected.”
The commonwealth of Virginia leaves general aviation airport land-use compatibility development standards up to the discretion of local governments. For the past two decades, the county has declined to establish standards for the areas around the Stafford Regional Airport. Recent development pressures and a series of deadly aircraft accidents around other airports have brought into focus the desperate need for such standards.
The draft compatibility standards presented to the public for comment on Wednesday evening represent eight months of research by the county planning staff, planning commissioners and members of the airport authority. They have assimilated the best guidelines from similar jurisdictions around the country into a well-thought-out, comprehensive, clear, easily understood set of recommended land-use development standards to guide development within the airport planning area.
The draft has been reviewed by the Virginia Department of Aviation, which plans to use them as an example for other similar jurisdictions around the commonwealth that want similar protections for their communities.
The draft defines the specific planning considerations related to land-use compatibility for properties affected by the airport’s FAA- approved aircraft traffic patterns. They include potential impacts from aircraft noise; safety for people on the ground and the occupants on aircraft; protection of airport airspace and the general concerns about aircraft overflights while protecting the by-right land uses of current landowners.
In 1989, the Stafford Board of Supervisors determined that a regional airport located in the center of the county was an “economic necessity.” In so doing, they envisioned that this center core of the county would one day become a thriving light industrial/business district providing many jobs for the county residents and surrounding localities.
The Federal Aviation Administration, state Department of Aviation, Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department Transportation concurred with this vision and provided Stafford with a debt-free $60 million general aviation reliever airport along with an Interstate 95 and U.S. 1 interchange.
But even without development standards around the airport, the commonwealth estimated in 2011 that the Stafford Regional Airport generated $4.4 million in payroll benefits, $18.4 million in economic activity, 107 jobs and $45 million in investment.
One of the major obstacles to large-scale economic development around the airport has been the lack of land use compatibility development standards. Why would entrepreneurs risk investing millions in facilities around the airport without the protection of quality land use development standards?
The encroachment of large-scale residential development is the greatest factor in the eventual closure of general aviation airports.
As a condition of receiving FAA and state grants, Stafford assured that it would do everything in its power to protect these investments from incompatible land uses, knowing that failure to do so could result in the loss of future funding.
It is ironic that the airport authority is seeking additional $12 million in grant monies for a 1,000-foot runway extension, which would significantly enhance Stafford County’s economic development efforts and the airport’s budget.
Now is the time for our county leaders to complete this final and most critical chapter of the Stafford Regional Airport by adopting these proposed standards into the county’s land use plan.
Philip Hornung is former chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors and chairman of the Joint Board of Supervisors/Planning Commission Airport Committee.