BROOKSVILLE – There’s something about the idea of her living room being less than 200 feet away from a private airstrip with weekly take-offs and landings that makes Pam Prevost nervous.
Especially when those planes are filled with many gallons of flammable liquid and will need to clear a 50-foot telephone line on Mondon Hill Road directly across her property, and then hit the landing at an angle with little more than 1,000 feet of runway.
Not that special use permit applicant Jeffrey Jones isn’t a capable pilot with well-maintained aircraft, residents say. But accidents happen and they don’t want to risk being part of one if they don’t have to.
Planning and Zoning commissioners in June approved Jones’ special exception use permit for the private airstrip on 36.5 acres of homesteaded property off Mondon Hill Road, south of Popiel Road. A discussion that would have reconsidered the planning board’s wisdom in that decision died during Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, effectively passing the permit by default.
“(Commissioner Diane Rowden) brought it up, and I seconded it, but it failed,” Commissioner Jim Adkins said. “(Commissioner Wayne Dukes) changed his vote on it.”
Which came as a surprise not only to the property owners who wrote letters of opposition and spoke publicly against the permit’s approval, but also to Dukes’ colleagues who, like him, visited the residents and their properties this past week.
“I think basically this goes beyond that, ‘not in my back yard’ philosophy,” Dukes said on Monday. “I think (Prevost) presented cracks (in his presentation) to make sure they would be reviewed. I have some questions and I don’t want to vote unless everybody that has input on this is represented.”
On Tuesday Dukes had more answers.
“Overnight, I thought about it, and I just didn’t want to go there,” Dukes said after the meeting. “I don’t really have a comment about it.”
Now that the private airstrip can move forward, the only recourse left for the nearby residents is matched legal action, which neighboring property owners say they are prepared to do.
“I’m very confused why Mr. Dukes changed his mind,” Rowden said, noting the hundreds that were injured Saturday when Asiana Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport. “It really brings to life when you have an accident like you had in San Francisco. The most crucial part of your flight is takeoff and landing. But there are houses within 80 feet. Not only that, you have the winds from the northeast, so there’s not much margin for error.”
Eugene Tobias, a commercial pilot with 5,000 hours of flight and part-owner of the centermost property neighboring the airstrip, said the planning board’s decision places more faith in general aviation pilots’ ability to handle planes than concern for the value and safety of themselves and their homes.
“Too many things can go wrong,” Tobias said. “It’s just too close.”
Especially for two properties at the ends of the runway, Tobias said.
“I’m being generous when I say that landing is 120 to 150 feet from my window. His takeoff place is right there at that tree in front of my house,” Prevost said. “Planning and Zoning didn’t even ask (Jones) how close the first home is, and that’s their job – I’m in the fireball zone.”
Prevost and other residents say the presentation Jones gave to the planning board, as well as the images used, gave a false perception of the runway’s surrounding area before they approved the special use permit.
“There was no mention of the location of my home,” Prevost wrote Adkins in a letter of opposition. “In all of his pictures he has intentionally not included any photos or the location of my home.”
An aerial view of the area shows Prevost’s property 200 to 300 feet from the proposed runway. However, in Jones’ presentation packet, Prevost’s property is obstructed by text.
“On his presentation he shows the proposed runway, at the very bottom you will see the words ‘access road,'” Prevost wrote. “My home is located under the ‘d’ in road. Disturbingly close to the end of the runway. I think pictures and presentations can be deceiving, and to make a fair decision to the people affected, this needs to be seen in person.”
That includes, among other things, verifying sound decibels meet code, but also the likelihood that property values could be significantly impacted with the introduction of an airstrip.
“Airport noise is the concern: the closer you are to runways and noise, the lower the value is,” Tobias said. “If I’m going to buy a house with several acres on it next to a runway, why would I buy that property when I can go down the same road and get one for the same price?”
During initial permit approval, Jones indicated to planning and zoning he may have visiting pilots use the airstrip, and although Jones said decibels from his plane were comparable to that of a vacuum, that isn’t much reassurance to surrounding property owners.
“The person that comes in – what kind of airplane are they going to come in on? Who are they going to bring in?” Tobias asked.
“I still don’t understand why the planning and zoning people didn’t consult with the airport manager at Brooksville: ‘I got all these houses: how close should I let a runway go by these houses? Is there a liability to the taxpayer should an accident happen?'”
Tobias and others fear a plane crashing into the neighboring woodline and starting a wildfire burning with aviation fuel.
As dramatic as it sounds, general aviation has the highest aviation accident rate within civil aviation, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The rate is six times higher than for small commuter operators, and 40 times higher than for transport category operations.
Personal flying accident rates have increased 20 percent over the last 10 years, according to the NTSB, and the fatal accident rate has increased 25 percent over the same 10-year period: 1,500 general aviation accidents investigated annually, in which more than 400 pilots and passengers were killed.
The closest fire station to the proposed airstrip is Hernando County Fire Rescue Station 21, and according to Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Carroll, fire rescue has an emergency plan for larger airports.
“But we don’t have a specific plan in place for (private airstrips),” said Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Carroll.
“We have done aircraft training in the past, and we have an old airplane, or prop if you will, and that is part of our training.”
Hernando County Fire Rescue has only one air truck, Carroll said, but all fire vehicles have foam to extinguish aviation fuel.
“Fuel is a big part of it,” Carroll said. “The water only, just like other flammable liquid, ends up spreading it, so that’s why we end up using a foam to keep the vapors down so they don’t ignite.”
But not every plane crash ends in flames, Carroll added. Some of HCFR training involves getting people out of planes properly and shutting down the aircraft engine.
“Sometimes the wheel of the landing gear won’t come down and it just slides on its belly,” Carroll said. “But obviously you have to be prepared.”