Living in an airpark where the runway is in your backyard is a dream for many pilots, but it can quickly turn into a nightmare when your access to the runway is denied because the strip is owned by someone other than the homeowners. That’s the situation facing residents of Tarpine Airpark just south of Panacea, Florida.
The airpark is adjacent to Wakulla County Airport (2J0). On September 19, the Wakulla County Board of County Commissioners is expected to vote to close the county-owned, public-use airport.
Since 1987, the airpark has had a through-the-fence agreement with Wakulla County for airport access. There are 47 homes at the airpark.
"It's the only public-use airport in Wakulla County," says Steven Fults, who has been the airport manager for 10 years. Despite the situation, he says he’s not worried about being out of a job. "It's a volunteer position, at no cost to the county." Fults is also part of the Owners Association (HOA) at Tarpines. He alleges that the county's actions over the years have demonstrated a lack of support and appreciation for the airport.
"They (the county) removed the lighting and the irrigation that the HOA paid for and never replaced them, even though the HOA has a contract with the county that clearly states the county is responsible to maintain the lighting and irrigation," he says.
If the Wakulla County Commissioners vote to close the airport, the airport license that allows it to operate will be revoked and the 15 acres that the airport sits on will be declared surplus property.
Could Airpark HOA Take Control?
Wakulla County is located in northern Florida along Ochlockonee Bay. Wakulla County Airport (2J0) was established in the 1960s by Fenton Jones, a local lodge owner. Jones donated the property to the county in 1966 under the condition that the property would always remain a public airport. The airport has a grass runway aligned north-south and measuring 2,590 feet by 70 feet. There are 20 T-hangars on the property.
The HOA has discussed taking over the liability and management of the airport and assuming responsibility for its operation. However, the county has the option of rejecting any offer made by the HOA and proceeding with the airport closure.
If the county votes to close the airport, the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) must notify the Florida Department of Transportation of its intent to abandon the airport and terminate the license. The FAA must also be notified of the intent to deactivate the airport and discontinue its use, and a date for the abandonment of the airport will be set.
If the HOA does not take over the airport, it is Fults' understanding that the property will revert back to Jones's heirs to do with as they please.
"The county has allowed the airport to become highly deficient," Fults continues, "and now, [they want] to dump their mess on the HOA or the (Jones) heirs, or just walk away."
According to Fults, the airport is not eligible for FAA funds; however, the county accepted more than $300,000 in grants from the Florida Department of Transportation for the creation of an airport master plan. It returned a $175,000 grant it had received for widening the runway to put it into compliance for public use airports.
"The HOA offered to take the airport reluctantly, but only if they cleared the title, and replaced the lighting and irrigation," Fults says. "The county has been offered FDOT 100 percent no-match grants to fix the airport, but the BoCC refuses; they now are abandoning it."
The proposed closure is drawing concern from aviation advocacy groups and officials from other airports in the Sunshine State who describe airports as economic engines that bring tourists to the area and support the community by providing open space and platforms for emergency medical transport.
Airport’s Benefits Are ‘Undeniable’
Andrew Chan, manager of Inverness Airport (KINF), located roughly 184 miles to the south of Wakulla, sent a letter to the Wakulla commissioners noting that the closure of the airport would be detrimental to the community.
“For 56 years, the airport has provided positive social, educational, recreational, and economic impacts to the county,” Chan's letter states. “The benefits to the community are undeniable. Reducing public infrastructure goes against the recommendations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), National Air Transportation Association (NATA), and your constituents. As Americans, we are granted certain rights such as FREEDOM. Freedom of flight is a precious right we have in the U.S. that exists in few other countries. Closing airports serves to deny this right.”
Supporters of the airport are urging concerned citizens to reach out to the Wakulla County Board of County Commissioners to voice their opposition to the closure.
The Wakulla County Board of County Commissioners did not immediately respond to FLYING’s request for comment.