Martin County Airport Options
The airport in our county has been controversial for years as folks have taken sides on various issues. However, people have come to a consensus on one issue and that is that the community does not want commercial air service at the airport.
Recently, the airport manager presented to the BOMCC current activities and options for potential projects at the airport. The reaction of the commissioners was interesting with one commissioner being rude to the airport manager by employing an argument ad hominem as opposed to attacking the facts. The commissioner was chastised by a fellow commissioner. (This is on YouTube, 3 May 2022 BOMCC Afternoon Meeting at 53:54) The decision of the Board (3-2) was to approve option 1 on the EMAS system, begin planning for the use of the land now occupied by the Public Works Department, retain the buffer on Monterey Road and bring back options for the parcel on Dixie Highway.
Let’s delve into the issue, but examine the facts around our airport. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, “Witham Field is located in Martin County, about one mile southeast of Stuart’s central business district. The field has three runways, with the longest runway measuring 5,828 feet. The airport primarily serves the general aviation needs of the local community. The airport has a voluntary noise abatement program and a voluntary nighttime curfew in effect to lessen the impact on surrounding neighborhoods. Witham Field primarily supports business and corporate traffic. The airport also supports recreational activity, flight training, and chartered flights.”
From an economic standpoint, the FDOT estimates the economic impact of Witham Field is approximately $786,440,000 annually. Three thousand two hundred and twenty-two (3,222) people are employed in airport operations and related activities generating a total payroll of $204,932,000 which is spent on the Treasure Coast. Direct On-Airport Impact is $461,887,000 with visitor spending estimated at $347,000. This is a huge benefit to our community. Statewide, the impact of airports in Florida is $175 Billion annually (yes that is with a “B”!). When we consider the numbers, the airport is a large contributor to the economic well-being of our community.
What should be the goal of our citizens and community leaders when evaluating the airport activities? Obviously, to be a positive economic contributor to our community would be a primary goal with a secondary goal of maintaining the quality of life in Martin County. If we can accept these premises, let’s look at the issues before the BOMCC in light of these premises.
The first issue was the Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) which was installed at the airport approximately 15 years ago and has a useful life of 15-20 years. The FAA requires that airports have a standard 1,000-foot overrun area at the end of the main runway; in this case Runway 12/30. Because the space was not available, an EMAS was installed to meet FAA standards. It should be noted that out of the 5,000 airports in the U.S. only 69 use an EMAS system. The EMAS was installed in 2011 and it is time to start planning for the refurbishment.
The Airport Director presented two options to the BOMCC:
- Option 1 was to rehabilitate and maintain the EMAS at the end of runway 12 and 30 at an approximate cost of $14 Million.
- Option 2 was to rehabilitate and maintain the runway 12 EMAS and eliminate the runway 30 EMAS at an approximate cost of $6 Million
The BOMCC opted for Option 1. The rationale used was that Option 1 would entail “expanding the airport” which according to Commissioner Smith we are” not going to expand the airport” and this was “the worst presentation he has ever seen” and it is a “stupid idea to move the fence line” (on YouTube, 3 May 2022 BOMCC Afternoon Meeting at 53:54).
From a financial standpoint, Option 2 is the least costly alternative to the taxpayers of Martin County. The unused land at the Sailfish Sands Golf Course, which cannot be developed since it sits at the end of a runway, will be put to a good use as a buffer for Runway 12. So perhaps it is not such a “stupid idea” to save $6 million, for the county to pocket $450,000 for 16 acres of unused and undevelopable land. The BOMCC should revisit the issue.
The second issue facing the airport is what to do with the three parcels of land on the airport property that are vacant. The parcels are:
- Parcel occupied by Martin County Public Works Department, approximately 10 acres. Public works is scheduled to move its operation to Palm City on the Kiplinger property that is currently under development. This move will take 3-5 years.
- Dixie Highway & Monterey Parcel, approximately 9 Acres which sits on the northwest corner of Runway 30.
- Monterey Road parcel of approximately 18 acres which is currently wooded and sits on the North side of Runway 7.
The BOMCC directed Mr. Carver to bring back options on the Dixie parcel and that there was no interest in developing the Monterey tract as it is to be left as a buffer. On the 10th of August, an open house was held at the administrative offices of the airport and the options were presented to the public with comments solicited.
Those options were as follows:
- Develop 50 “T” and 14 box hangars to serve the general aviation community. There is a shortage of hangar space and high demand for this project.
- Develop 3 25,000 square foot hangars to be leased out to aircraft related business. It is estimated that this would employ an additional 30 people with an average salary of $80,000 per year bringing an additional $2,400,000 in payroll to the Treasure Coast plus the revenue generated from the lease.
- Develop a hybrid of one 25,000 square foot hangar and the balance to be 32 “T” and 6 box hangars. This would relieve some of the pressure on the demand for hangar space plus provide space to be leased to an aircraft related business. This would potentially employ 10 people at $80,000/ annum and bring an additional $800,000 payroll dollars plus generate revenue from the lease.
- Develop a 200,000-square-foot warehouse to be leased out which will also create jobs; however, not at the same salary level as aviation mechanics.
In considering the three options, the most financially advantageous to the taxpayers of Martin County is to develop 3 large hangars to be leased out to aircraft-related businesses. This would have a positive economic impact on our community by creating high-paying jobs and income to sustain airport operations so that it is not a burden on the taxpayers.
There is a shortage of hangar space for the general aviation community and this should be addressed by beginning to plan for the departure of the Public Works Department, and dedicate that space to general aviation “T” and box hangars. It is more centrally located than the Dixie Property and abuts existing taxiways. The space will accommodate 60 covered spaces plus a 4,800 square yards of additional apron parking.
In conclusion, the BOMCC should reconsider its decision to retain the EMAS system at a cost of $14 million to refurbish the system, instead, sell the 16 acres on the Sailfish Sands property to the Airport, pocket $450,000 on the sale and reduce the refurbishment cost to $6 million.
Regarding the Dixie Highway property, develop 3 25,000 square foot hangars to be leased to aviation-related businesses to create 30 high-paying jobs and continue to add to the positive economic impact of the airport.