No Demand for New Facility; Taxpayer Boondoggle Would Benefit St. Joe Company

WASHINGTON (September 15, 2006) -- Today the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defied common sense by approving the construction of a new, $300-million airport in a remote area miles from Panama City, national and Florida conservation organizations said.

"The FAA plan would fleece taxpayers to build an airport to nowhere," said Melanie Shepherdson, attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Given that traffic at the current airport has dropped dramatically, there's no demand for this new one, which would destroy nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands that protect water quality and provide a buffer against storms."

Traffic at the Panama City Airport has decreased over the last several years. Since the fall of 2001, the number of daily flights in and out of the airport has dropped in half, from 50 to approximately 24 arrivals and departures, according to the airport's monthly flight activity reports. According to Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport), a local pilots group, any reasonably foreseeable growth in demand could be met by expanding the current airport.

Regardless, over the last few years, the state legislature has spent tens of millions of dollars to pave the way for the airport project, which would sit in the middle of thousands of undeveloped acres of pine forest and wetlands in Bay County, more than 30 miles away from Panama City. The St. Joe Company, the largest private landowner in the state, has agreed to donate 4,000 acres for the facility. It expects the new airport to trigger development in the region, increasing the value of its vast landholdings.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) already has spent $1 million for an airport relocation study, and has allocated $82.2 million over the next five years to support the move.

In addition, FDOT has been upgrading regional infrastructure to accommodate a new airport. For example, the agency has been widening sections of S.R. 79, the main artery that would be used to access the proposed airport site, from two lanes to four. As the highway approaches the coast, it runs through the 70,000 acres of undeveloped, St. Joe property where the new airport would be located.

All told, over the past five years, the agency has spent approximately $52 million on construction projects on segments of S.R. 79 located on or immediately adjacent to St. Joe property. The agency projects that it will spend another $135 million on additional nearby road segments.

Relocating the Panama City Airport to St. Joe's undeveloped site would necessitate filling in nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands and burying more than a mile of streams. An estimated 7,000 additional acres of wetlands would be lost to surrounding developments. These wetlands are vital for filtering contaminants, cycling nutrients, providing habitat, and controlling flooding.

The proposed airport would spur new planned communities, resort hotels, shopping malls and condominiums. Ultimately, the health of the West Bay and the St. Andrew Bay could deteriorate substantially, and its valuable habitat, which provides a home for dolphins, sea turtles, Florida black bears, gopher tortoises, and a variety of other wildlife, could be destroyed.

Twelve Florida conservation organizations and NRDC asked the FAA in mid-July to reassess its environmental impact statement for the project. They charged that the agency failed to fully evaluate the environmental threats posed by building the new airport in Bay County and redeveloping the site of the Panama City Airport, which would include a 250-boat marina, and commercial and residential buildings. (For more information, go to www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/060718.asp.) The agency did not respond.

"The local airport authority rejected plans to expand the current airport back in 1998 because it would have harmed Goose Bayou, but the new proposal to redevelop the airport site would do just that," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. "The FAA didn't do its job.

"A majority of Bay County voters rejected the airport proposal in a 2004 nonbinding referendum," she added, "but St. Joe has a lot of friends in high places. The company gave more than half a million dollars to the state Republican Party over the past eight years, and they control the statehouse."

Even with today's FAA approval, the project faces more hurdles before it becomes a reality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still has to issue a Clean Water Act permit allowing developers to destroy wetlands and bury streams to build the new airport. And given the depressed real estate market in the region, it is unclear that the airport authority will be able to command a high enough selling price for the current airport site to finance the new facility.