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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

This week, NPR has been reporting on the largest private landowner in Florida. Today, we'll focus on a legal battle in Florida's panhandle. It's over a proposed new airport that county officials promote as a moneymaker.

CHADWICK: But the Panama City Bay County International Airport would be built on 4,000 acres of what is now mostly pine forests, and opponents worry this is going to damage fragile wetlands.

BRAND: Behind the debate is another key player: the real estate developer that donated the land and has big plans for Northwestern Florida.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: It's sometimes called Florida's Forgotten Coast. The Panhandle - an area stretching from Tallahassee to Pensacola - is a region of pine forests, wetlands and rivers - some of the most pristine land left in the state. The reason it's remained largely untouched is that much of it is held by a single owner - a former paper manufacturer, the St. Joe Company.

Ten years ago, St. Joe changed directions 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 the hundreds of thousands of acres of land it owns in Florida's panhandle.

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ALLEN: As it turns out, a key to the company's development plans can be found here, along a stretch of two-lane highway in rural Bay County.

Mr. DON HODGES (Resident, Florida): This is Crooked Creek that runs essentially north/south into the West Bay

ALLEN: Don Hodges standing on a bridge overlooking a river that at its widest, is no more than 100 feet across.

Crooked Creek is one of just two rivers that empty into St. Andrews Bay, one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. It's just a few miles upstream of where we're standing that Bay County plans to build a new airport, on 4,000 acres of land donated by the St. Joe Company.

Hodges is a former airline executive who lives in Panama City, and he worries about the impact the project will have on the rivers and the Bay.

Mr. HODGES: They are the only source of freshwater which is an important component of the nursery ecosystem for all of the inshore gulf fishers.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

Mr. HODGES: The flounder, the red snapper and the sea trout - all of these inshore fish originate on these grass flats and the estuary.

ALLEN: Bay County already has an airport. It's in Panama City, a small terminal with a short, 63,000-foot runway built right on the Bay. It's an airport that served mostly by small regional jets and turbo props.

The sign out side says Panama City, Bay County International Airport.

(Soundbite of machine sounds)

ALLEN: But step inside, and it's quiet - a small regional airport with one coffee shop, six gates and just a handful of flights daily.

Mr. TED WARNER(ph) (Friends of PFN): The airport that we have here is perfectly adequate.

ALLEN: Ted Warner is with Friends of PFN. That's the FAA's three-letter designation for Panama City. It's a local pilots' group that opposes plans to close the existing airport in favor of a new $330 million facility that Warner says simply isn't needed.

Mr. WARNER: For the passengers we have here, the airlines that are serving us have got no trouble taking off or landing here. And as you can see, the crowds, they just aren't there.

ALLEN: Just two air carriers serve the airport with about a dozen planes. There are empty gates, hand-empty ticket counters. If all goes according to the airport authority's plan, this airport will close in the next few years, to be replaced by the new facility built in the middle of tens of thousands of acres owned by the St. Joe Company. Warner believes the push for the new airport has nothing to do with passenger demand.

Mr. WARNER: This is primarily a land deal, and St. Joe is going to benefit tremendously from it. They're donating about 4,000 acres of pristine wetland which they can't - it would be very expensive to develop. But then they're going to hold onto the land surrounding the airport and develop it.

ALLEN: Warner's group has gone to court to try to stop the airport, and is backed by two environmental groups - the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Defenders of Wildlife. The groups are concerned about plans to bury streams and fill in wetlands.

They worry about what that would do to the Bay and to the habitat of threatened species of wildlife. In September, a new wrinkle emerged in the opposition when scientists reported sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species thought extinct in an area not far from the proposed airport.

Officials with the airport in St. Joe point out that as part of the application for FAA approval, they did exhaustive studies and filed an environmental impact statement that showed 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.

And according to Randy Curtis, head of the Panama City Bay County Airport, project designers have developed a state-of-the-art plan for managing storm water runoff.

Mr. RANDY CURTIS (Director, Panama City Bay County Airport): Basically, if you take the footprint of the 4,000 acre, we've identified the water flow or outflow of water that often goes into the creeks and the bay itself and design a storm water treatment program where it basically will mimic the existing quality of water that's flowing off the site today, as well as the quantity and timing of the water, which is very critical.

ALLEN: Even so, in a non-binding referendum three years ago, voters rejected the proposal for the airport. Undeterred, the airport authority and the St. Joe Company 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 likes to drive reporters along Panama City beach, where 1950's era motels are giving way, in some areas almost overnight, to high-rise condominiums. A major reason why this area has remained largely undeveloped, Ray says, is a lack of infrastructure. The airport, he says, is part of an effort to fix that.

Mr. JERRY RAY (Vice President, St. Joe Company): This whole region needs a whole - in order to be a great place to live and raise a family and work and be successful has to have the kinds of resources and infrastructure that the rest of the country enjoys.

Here's somebody from…

ALLEN: Texas. Ohio again. Somewhere in Alabama.

It's street-level market research. Ray drives slowly through a parking lot looking at out-of-state state tags. The reason for the airport, he says, isn't to serve current demands. It's to accommodate people like these visitors, mostly from the South and Midwest, who are gravitating to Florida's Panhandle to vacation and increasingly to live full-time.

Bay County may be a backwater, but it won't be for long. Florida's population is expected to grow by 12 million people over the next 25 years and St. Joe believes that much of that growth will be here in the Panhandle.

Mr. RAY: We think a lot about how this whole place is going to happen and how it's going to unfold over the next generation, two generations. I'm not young enough to see how this will turn out, but I do have confidence. As we sort of look at the future, we will take a good stab at trying to get it right.

ALLEN: Although the FAA has given its approval, there are still obstacles ahead for the airport. Friends of PFN and the environmental groups are appealing the FAA decision. And with the project's rising cost there's another growing uncertainty - how it will be paid for.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

BRAND: To hear the previous stories in this series, you can visit our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: In Florida, and several other states, thousands and thousands of protesters are expected to be on the streets today calling for greater rights for immigrants. Protests last year on May Day drew an estimated one million people nationwide, many of them here in Los Angeles. And they added a new slogan to America's political lexicon.

Unidentified Group: (Spanish spoken)

BRAND: It can be done, the chant from the Latino demonstrators. Those words became a rallying cry. They also galvanized many opponents of immigrant rights. Today's marches are expected to be smaller than last year's and NPR will be covering them throughout the day.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY after this.

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