Airport runway gets green light

Published 11:52 pm Friday, September 17, 2010

A runway extension at the Hampton Roads Executive Airport got the blessing of City Council Wednesday.

The council approved a Comprehensive Plan amendment, rezoning request and conditional use permit request to allow the runway at the airport to extend about 150 feet into Suffolk. The majority of the airport, located on U.S. Route 58 east of the bypass, is in Chesapeake.

Concerns about traffic and business competition with the city-run airport off Carolina Road threatened to delay the vote, but the three moves eventually passed unanimously.

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The heavy traffic on U.S. Route 58 in that area was the chief worry.

“Congestion is so heavy the speeds are starting to drop,” Suffolk Public Works Director Eric Nielsen said at the meeting. The road carries about 71,000 vehicles a day, he said — about 11,000 more than its recommended maximum.

“Turning into or out of this airport is extremely dangerous,” he added.

The entrance to the airport is located entirely in Chesapeake, but council members were troubled by the effects even more traffic would have on Suffolk portions of the road. The extended runway is not expected to generate much more traffic, but later planned improvements could.

City staff recommended a stipulation that would require a public hearing in Suffolk before the later improvements — all located entirely in Chesapeake — could be constructed. Attorney Whitney Saunders, who is representing the airport, objected to the suggestion.

“It becomes a matter of sovereignty,” he said. “I don’t think we want the city of Chesapeake making decisions on what happens in the city of Suffolk.”

Councilman Jeffrey Gardy still was bothered by the traffic issue.

“I might tend to disagree,” he said. “I’m thoroughly convinced the traffic in Bowers Hill influences the traffic in Hamburger Alley.”

Though City Attorney Ed Roettger said he believed the condition was valid, council members ultimately deleted it from the final document.

“We are trying to do something that Chesapeake may want to do themselves,” Councilman Charles Brown said. “We’ve got to do what’s legally right.”

Competition with the Suffolk Executive Airport also caused apprehension in at least one audience member. Art Bredemeyer, a member of the municipal airport’s board, spoke during the public hearing to express his views.

“Our concern is that we haven’t heard anything mentioned about the Suffolk Executive Airport and the impact on it,” he said. “Indirectly, it may end up benefiting the Suffolk airport. We don’t know.”

Some council members seemed to support tabling the matter until they had more information about how the move would affect Suffolk’s airport. Saunders, however, assured the members it would benefit Suffolk as a whole.

“This is an economic engine for the city of Suffolk,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Others, like Mayor Linda T. Johnson, stressed the difference between business and land use issues.

“We are confusing some issues,” she said. “This is the Hampton Roads Executive Airport. It is good for Chesapeake. It is good for Suffolk. It is good for Hampton Roads.”

Business owners who spoke during the public hearing agreed.

“The sole reason why I moved to Suffolk is the Hampton Roads Executive Airport,” said David Hines, who owns a business there. “While the airport may be the best place to run my business, living in Suffolk is the best place to raise my family.”

George Blair, of Blair Brothers, Inc., said the airport helped his family establish the business. Before he bought an airplane, he was making the round-trip journey between Bluefield, W.Va., and Suffolk weekly.

“I figured there has to be a better way,” he said. “This enabled us to build the company that has provided a lot of jobs. It is an integral part of business growth.”