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Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, USA


Description:

Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is situated 15 kilometres inland from famous white sand beaches, amidst dense pine forests and marshes. In 2009, as construction was underway, Journalist Hal Herring described the area as the ‘last undeveloped expanse of Florida’, the wetlands among the most biologically diverse habitats in the US, providing a haven for black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers and the endangered gopher tortoise. Rivers, creeks and springs flowing into West Bay and among the cleanest in the country, are vital for inshore fisheries.[1] When construction of the airport began in 2008 concrete was being produced on site at a rate sufficient to fill a mixing truck every two and a half minutes.[2] By May 2009, two kilometres of slow-moving streams had been paved over. The porous wetlands were too fragile to support conventional building foundations, so earth was excavated and filled in with reinforced concrete supported by steel poles.[3] The airport has one runway and the site covers 1,618 hectares, providing plenty of room for growth including two additional runways.[4] Northwest Florida Beaches Airport was built in spite of six lawsuits from environmental groups and a non-binding referendum in which 56 per cent of citizens rejected the project. Opponents of the airport were outraged by the wording of the question posed by the referendum, as it stated there would no cost to taxpayers.[1] The voters were misled. Construction of the airport cost about USD318 million, from a variety of federal, state and local government sources in approximately equal amounts. Linda Young, Director of Clean Water Network of Florida (CWN), a coalition of 155 groups committed to safeguarding water resources, said ‘decision-makers have been hoodwinked into spending vast sums of public money on an environmentally destructive fiasco’.[5]

Water quality violations

Authorization of construction of the airport by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in September 2006, heightening concerns over destruction of 809 hectares of wetlands for the airport itself, triggering development on ‘thousands of surrounding acres’ of wetlands that provide wildlife habitat and are vital for buffering storms and controlling flooding. In November 2006 two conservationist groups, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Defenders of Wildlife, along with a pilots’ organization, Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport), filed a law suit against construction of the airport. Melanie Shepherdson of NRDC slammed FAA approval of the airport as illegal, saying: ‘The law is clear: The agency has to pick the alternative that is least damaging to the environment. And it failed to do that.’[6] Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority attempted to assuage concerns over building a major airport on wetlands by committing to storm and wastewater treatment systems exceeding the requirements of Florida law.[7] But these standards were flouted during airport construction. CWN reported that even light rainfall resulted in uncontrolled mudflows. Water from above the airport site had previously been absorbed by sponge like wetlands and forest then released slowly into West Bay. Now it rushed over the impermeable concrete of the airport site. CWN reported that: ‘The torrents of mud from the site have clouded previously pristine waters flowing downstream from the airport site and accumulating in marshes, creeks, streams, fish beds and the estuary, causing a steady decline in habitat and water quality.’ CWN stated that the company building the airport, Phoenix Construction Services, was ‘in clear violation of its generic permit for stormwater discharge with turbidity levels in runoff draining into creeks and wetlands significantly higher than permitted by Florida’s water quality standards.[8] Already, in May 2009, the state of Florida had imposed USD393,849 in fines for 72 water quality violations and filling in a small area of wetland without a permit.[1]

Development on land around the airport

Part of the rationale for the airport project, enveloped by pine forests and far from population centres, was to facilitate development on the land surrounding it. Shepherdson explained that ‘the airport to nowhere’ will spur construction of industrial parks, hotels, shopping malls and condominiums.[6] Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is the lynchpin of the West Sector Bay Plan for commercial and residential development, described by Hal Herring as ‘the largest land-planning effort ever undertaken in Florida’. Randy Curtis, Executive Director of Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority said: ‘The relocation of the airport is going to be the trigger to remake the entire Bay County area.’ The site for the airport was donated by St. Joe Company, one of the largest private landowners in Florida. St. Joe’s 2009 Annual Report explains that the company owns almost 290 square kilometers surrounding the new airport, and stands to profit from development of beach front residences and office, industrial, retail and hotel development around the airport itself. The Annual Report states: ‘We anticipate that the airport will provide a catalyst for value creation in the property we own surrounding the airport, as well as our other properties throughout Northwest Florida.’[9] Approval of the airport project was facilitated by St. Joe’s considerable political influence, evident from donations to more than 100 state candidates between 1997 and 2002, at the maximum legal amount.

Uncertainties over preservation area

Some environmental groups were placated by St. Joe’s promise to mitigate environmental damage of the airport by setting aside 162 square kilometers of woodlands and shoreline as a preservation area, to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. But almost half of this area is merely the legally required mitigation for loss of wetlands habitat to the airport and there were uncertainties regarding the status of the preservation area. St. Joe failed to respond to repeated requests to formalise the preservation area by confirming it in writing and protection of geographically isolated wetlands had been removed in 2001, leaving no recourse to federal law. Hal Herring pointed out that protection of a specific area of wetlands, in isolation from the wider ecosystem, is unworkable anyway; the entire watershed depends upon water flows that are now blocked by the concrete slab of the airport along with access roads.[1] CWN’s Linda Young likened the preservation plan to saying ‘we’re going to preserve your arms and legs forever, but we're going to cut out your heart and liver’.[10] Northwest Florida Beaches Airport opened on 23rd May May 2010. A veneer of native flora and foliage - goldenrods, purple muhly grass and yellow and pink Indian blanket flowers - adorned the entrances to the airport and terminal.[11] But ecological damage to the wetlands surrounding the airport continued. There had been further incidences of stormwater runoff damage to wetlands; in September 2010 the Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Airport Authority to plant 600 trees to replace 86 that had been killed.[12] Problems caused by stormwater runoff polluting creeks with dirt and sediment continued into 2012. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport sought USD1.25 million government funds, from the FAA or State Department of Transportation, to collect the excess water and use it to irrigate the plants around the airport entrance.[13]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Florida
Location of conflict:Bay County
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Deforestation
Urban development conflicts
Ports and airport projects
Specific commodities:Land
Water
wetlands

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is owned and operated by Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District.[14] Design of the airport began in 1998. Ground-breaking took place in November 2007 and the facility opened on 23rd May 2010. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport was built to replace the now closed Panama-City-Bay County Airport, located less than 5 kilometers away.[4] It was the first major new airport to be constructed in the US since Denver Airport, which opened in 1995.[1] Airport construction costs were approximately USD318 million, from federal state and local government sources.[5]

Land for the airport was donated by St. Joe Company, one of the largest private landowners in Florida.[1] St. Joe Company provided revenue guarantees to attract Southwest Airlines to establish services at the airport.[4] In November 2009 project manager Jones Lang LaSalle spoke of rare development opportunities on the airport site which boasted 567 hectares of commercial and industrial land available for development with ‘favorable zoning’. Direct access to the runway and the greenfield site offered a unique opportunity for air freight carriers, distributors manufacturing and other aviation-related users.[7] In May 2011 the Global Airport Cities website reported that an ‘airport city’ was taking shape at NW Florida Beaches Airport; a 404 hectare enterprise center, VentureCrossings Enterprise Center, comprising office, retail, hotel and light industrial elements was scheduled to open shortly.[15] VentureCrossing Enterprise Center was built on land adjacent to the airport. The first tenant, defence contractor ITT Corporation, was confirmed in September 2011; the firm planned to build a 9,290 square meter facility, supported by a package of state and local incentives, including property tax abatement, approved by the Bay County Commission.[16]

In May 2015, as NW Florida Beaches entered its fifth year of operations, officials informed local news outlets of new flights operated by two airlines, United Airways and Silver Airlines. In 2014 the airport had handled 815,000 passengers, in comparison with 313,000 passengers at the old Panama City Airport in its final year of operations. These new flights plus 486 hectares of ‘developable property ready for industrial growth’ meant that the airport was ‘better poised for growth than ever before’. NW Florida Airport’s 1,618 hectare site is far larger than Panama-City Airport which covered just 300 hectares.[17]

In December 2019 St. Joe Company broke ground on a hotel next to Northwest Florida Beaches Airport.[18]

Project area:1,618
Level of Investment:318,000,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:14/11/2006
End of the conflict:23/05/2010
Company names or state enterprises:Phoenix Construction - Site preparation and airport construction
Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated (JLL) from United States of America - NW Florida Beaches Airport commercial developer
Southwest Airlines from United States of America - St. Joe provided a revenue guarantee to help attract the airline to beging flights from the airport[4]
AVCON Inc from United States of America - Worked on initial feasibility study, site selection, planning studies and designed many of NW Florida Beaches Airport’s facilities[4]
St. Joe Company from United States of America - Donated land for the airport and owns land surrounding it
ITT Corporation from United States of America - Confirmed as first tenant at VentureCrossing Enterprise Center on land adjacent to the airport[16]
Relevant government actors:Bay County
State of Florida
Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District (The Airport Authority)
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Bay County Economic Development Alliance (EDA of Bay)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Clean Water Network - https://environmentflorida.org/feature/fle/clean-water-network
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) - https://www.nrdc.org/
Defenders of Wildlife
Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Local scientists/professionals
Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport)
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Soil contamination
Potential: Soil erosion, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Waste overflow, Oil spills
Health ImpactsPotential: Other environmental related diseases
Other Health impactsIllnesses caused by pollutants emitted by aircraft
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The airport was constructed in spite of a majority opposing it in a referendum, which stated misleading information on the financing of the project, that it would not be at the cost of taxpayers. Moreover, in December 2019 It was broken ground on a hotel next to Northwest Florida Beaches Airport.

Sources & Materials

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[3] Airport Construction Dumps Tons of Mud in Estuary, Defuniak Herald, 15 May 2009
http://www.airportimprovement.com/content/story_result.php?article=00192

[5] Lawmakers Should Halt Airport Boondoggle, Tampa Bay Online, 14 April 2008
http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/apr/14/na-lawmakers-should-halt-airport-boondoggle/ (accessed 16 August 2010)

[6] Conservationists and Pilots File Suit against FAA's $331-Million Florida Panhandle ‘Airport to Nowhere’, CWN, 14 November 2006
http://www.cleanwaternetwork-fl.org/content/disp_article.php?f=issues/111406-FAAsuitdefenders.html (accessed 10 June 2009)

[7] Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, Designed as Country's First LEED(R) Certified Airport, to Start Passenger and Freight Service May 2010, PR Newswire, November 2009
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/northwest-florida-beaches-international-airport-designed-as-countrys-first-leedr-certified-airport-to-start-passenger-and-freight-service-may-2010-78152507.html

[8] Lawsuit Looming to Stop Airport Construction, Defuniak Herald, 3 July 2009
http://defuniakherald.com/?p=1091 (accessed 27 March 2013)

[9] The St. Joe Company, Annual Report 2009, March 2010
http://files.shareholder.com/downloads/JOE/2391197492x0x363618/95D1E17F-F82E-4847-B7F3-203D214601F9/2009AnnualReport.pdf (accessed 27 March 2013)

[10] New Panhandle airport will be first in U.S. since 9/11, Tampa Bay Times, 17 August 2007
http://www.sptimes.com/2007/08/17/State/New_Panhandle_airport.shtml (accessed 27 March 2013)

[11] Airport vegetation provides ‘good impression' to travelers, officials say, Newsherald.com, 2 November 2011
http://www.newsherald.com/articles/say-98040-bay-travelers.html (accessed 11 November 2011)

[12] Airport Authority Discusses Ground Transportation, Damaged Wetland Issues, Wjhg.com, 15 September 2010
http://www.wjhg.com/home/headlines/103000164.html (accessed 27 March 2013)

[2] Main Runway is PAVED at New Airport, PCBDaily, 2 February 2009
http://pcbdaily.com/main-runway-is-paved-at-new-airport-video (accessed 27 March 2013)

[13] Storm Water Runoff Problems Still Exists at Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, Dailymotion, 23 February 2012
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xp036n_storm-water-runoff-problems-still-exists-at-northwest-florida-beaches-airport_news (accessed 27 March 2013)

[14] About ECP
https://www.iflybeaches.com/airport-authority/about-ecp

[15] FLORIDA BEACHES' AIRPORT CITY TAKES SHAPE, Global Airport Cities, 7 May 2011
http://www.globalairportcities.com/florida-beaches-airport-city-takes-shape (accessed 27 May 2011)

[17] New Florida Panhandle airport now 5 years old, plans to grow, 24 May 2015, USA Today
http://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2015/05/24/florida-panhandle-airport-marks-5th-year-plans-to-grow/27881651/

[4] Forecast Looks Sunny & Clear for New Florida Airport, Airport Improvement Magazine, July-August 2010
http://www.airportimprovement.com/content/story_result.php?article=00192

[18] St. Joe Company breaks ground on hotel next to NW Florida Beaches International Airport, Northwest Florida Daily News, 19 December 2019
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7rmW4WqIsM

[16] Defense Contractor To Move Operations To New Airport Site, WMBB News, 7 September 2011
http://www.wmbb.com/story/15405731/defense-contractor-announces (accessed 27 March 2013)

Other documents

[1] Hal Herring, The Panhandle Paradox, MillerMccune, 17 August 2009 http://halherring.com/files/PDF/CoastalDev/panhandleparadox.pdf (accessed 18 June 2011)
https://file.ejatlas.org/docs/4887/panhandle_paradox.pdf

Meta information

Contributor:Rose Bridger, Stay Grounded, email: [email protected]
Last update26/03/2020

Images

 

Aerial view of NW Florida Beaches Airport

Source: Airport of the World, 25 May 2010 https://airportsworld.keypublishing.com/2010/05/25/first-new-us-airport-in-15-years/

Bay-Walton Sector Plan

Bay-Walton Sector Plan showing NW Florida Beaches Airport. Source: Bay-Walton Sector Plan http://bay-waltonsectorplan.com/map_planning.html

Long Term Master Plan

Long Term Master Plan for development around NW Florida Beaches Airport. Source: Bay-Walton Sector Plan http://bay-waltonsectorplan.com/mapabout_masterplan.html