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Developer A Key Player in Florida Airport Fight

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Developer A Key Player in Florida Airport Fight

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Developer A Key Player in Florida Airport Fight

Developer A Key Player in Florida Airport Fight

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The last in a three-part series.

Crooked Creek in Bay County, Fla. i

Crooked Creek in Bay County, Fla., is one of just two rivers that deliver freshwater to St. Andrews Bay, one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen, NPR
Crooked Creek in Bay County, Fla.

Crooked Creek in Bay County, Fla., is one of just two rivers that deliver freshwater to St. Andrews Bay, one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America.

Greg Allen, NPR

A legal battle is under way over a proposal to build a new airport in Florida's largely undeveloped panhandle.

The Panama City/Bay County International airport is planned on 4,000 acres of what is now mostly pine forest. County officials say it's important for the area's economic growth, while opponents argue that it's not needed and would damage fragile wetlands.

In the background is another key player — the real-estate developer that donated the land and has big plans for the state's panhandle, an area stretching from Tallahassee to Pensacola that's sometimes called Florida's "Forgotten Coast."

It's remained largely untouched because much of it is held by a single owner, the St. Joe Co., a former paper manufacturer. Ten years ago, St. Joe changed direction and decided to begin using its land for people, not paper. Almost overnight, the company reformed itself as a real-estate developer and began making big plans for its hundreds of thousands of acres of land.

Don Hodges, a former airline executive who lives in Panama City, said he worries about the effect of the airport project on St. Andrews Bay, one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, and the two rivers that empty into it.

"They are the only source of freshwater, which is an important component of the nursery ecosystem for all of the in-shore Gulf fishery," he says.

Bay County already has an airport in Panama City, a small terminal with a short, 6,300-foot runway built right on the bay. It's served mostly by small regional jets and turboprops with just a handful of flights daily.

If all goes according to the airport authority's plan, the current airport will close in the next few years and will be replaced by a brand-new, $330 million facility in the middle of tens of thousands of acres owned by the St. Joe Co.

A local pilots' group fighting the new airport project is called Friends of PFN, the Federal Aviation Administration's three-letter designation for the existing airport. Member Fred Werner says the new airport isn't needed because the current one can handle the region's needs.

Werner says he believes the push for the new airport has nothing to do with passenger demand.

"This is primarily a land deal, and St. Joe is going to benefit tremendously from it," Werner said. "They're donating about 4,000 acres of pristine wetland ... but then they're going to hold on to the land surrounding the airport and develop it."

Werner's group has gone to court to try to stop the airport, backed by two environmental groups. They're concerned about what burying streams and filling in 2,000 acres of wetlands would do to the bay and to the habitat of threatened wildlife.

In September, a new wrinkle emerged in the opposition when scientists reported sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker — a species thought to be extinct — in an area not far from the proposed airport.

Officials with the airport and St. Joe point out that as part of the application for FAA approval, they did studies and filed an environmental impact statement that show the project won't harm protected species or the bay. One environmental group, the Audubon Society, is working with St. Joe to set up a nature center on some of the thousands of acres that are being set aside for conservation.

Project designers also have developed a state-of-the-art plan for managing storm water runoff, says Randy Curtis, head of the Panama City-Bay County airport.

Even so, in a nonbinding referendum three years ago, voters rejected the proposal for the airport. Undeterred, the airport authority and St. Joe forged ahead with their plans.

Since then, St. Joe Vice President Jerry Ray has spent a lot of his time in Bay County, building support for the project. He says a major reason the area has remained largely undeveloped is a lack of infrastructure. The airport, he says, is part of an effort to fix that.

The airport isn't intended to serve current demand, he says. It's intended to accommodate visitors, mostly from the South and Midwest, who are gravitating to Florida's panhandle to vacation and, increasingly, to live full-time, he says.

Florida's population is expected to grow by 12 million people during the next 25 years, and St. Joe is operating on the belief that much of that growth will be in the panhandle.

Although the FAA has given its approval, a lot of obstacles remain for the airport. Friends of PFN and the environmental groups are appealing the FAA decision, and with the project's rising costs, there's another growing uncertainty: how it will be funded.

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