Panama City gets financial green light

The Panama City - Bay County International Airport and Industrial District (Airport Authority) has announced the completion of the Airport Authority’s $312 million financial package for the new airport in western Bay County.With the financing complete, the airport now holds all permits, approvals and funding to start construction, which would have begun this week but for the temporary stay recently issued by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Court in New York at the request of Friends of PFN.

In completing its financial package for relocation, the Airport Authority has received payment of $56.5 million in escrow for the sale of the current airport site to a subsidiary of Leucadia National Corporation. In addition to the $56.5 million, the transaction also calls for transfer fees over a 90 year period from the sale of future properties developed on the current airport site. The current airport is on approximately 700 acres adjacent to North Bay in Panama City.

With the financing package complete and all permits in hand, the Airport Authority has approved, but not issued, a full and unrestricted “Notice to Proceed” to general contractor Phoenix Construction. However a federal court in New York City granted an emergency stay halting construction to Friends of PFN, a group of local general aviation pilots who oppose the relocation of the airport. The Airport Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration filed emergency motions earlier this week asking the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Court in New York to vacate the stay or hold a hearing on the merits of the case.

The stay sought by the recreational pilots groups unless lifted will consume at least one month prior to the requested hearing. According to the Airport Authority’s counter-motion filed with the court, it will cost a minimum of $1.2 million to grant the delay in the hearing.

In its response to Friends of PFN’s motion for a stay halting construction, the Airport Authority told the court:

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(Friends of PFN) lacks standing even to pursue this motion. FPFN is not an environmental organization, and lacks any expertise or legitimate interest in the issues presented by this appeal. FPFN basically is a small group of general aviation pilots who do not want the inconvenience of relocating their airplanes to an airport that is further away. FPFN complains that “50 + additional [round trip] driving miles will eliminate the recreational advantages of owning an airplane.”

Putting aside the inaccuracy of this allegation, such recreational inconvenience does not establish the sort of injury protected by either the National Environmental Protection Act or the Airway and Airports Improvement Act, which declares that: “It is the policy of the United States - that the safe operation of the airport and airway system is the highest aviation priority.”

In its response to Friends of PFN’s motion for a stay, the United States Department of Justice on behalf of the Federal Aviation Administration argued to the court:

...respondents FAA and Marion C. Blakey (FAA’s administrator) demonstrate that Friends’ emergency stay motion must be denied because Friends have demonstrated no likelihood of success on the merits and the allegation of irreparable harm absent a stay is groundless.

“In considering the relocation of our airport over the past ten years, hundreds of public meetings have been held, and the Airport Authority has received 18 approvals and permits and coordinated input from 22 federal, state and local agencies,” said Bill Cramer, vice chairman of the Airport Authority. “We believe the tremendous regional transportation, economic and environmental benefits resulting from the relocation far outweigh the claims of our opponents. This delay is like grounding the space shuttle at T minus 5 seconds,” said Cramer.

“I want to reassure the public at large, businesses in our region, businesses actively seeking to come to our region, local and state environmental organizations, local construction crews, military leaders at Tyndall AFB and Eglin AFB and others who share our optimism for the future, that the Airport Authority is doing everything possible to resolve the issues pending in New York so that we can begin construction,” said Cramer.

The airport is to be built in the 75,000-acre West Bay Area Sector on 1,300 acres of a 4,000-acre site being donated to the Airport Authority by The St. Joe Company.

Once airport construction begins, work will also begin on an unprecedented environmental preservation effort designed to help protect the entire West Bay watershed, an area considered one of Florida’s environmental jewels. Relocation of the airport triggers the creation of the West Bay Preservation Area, a conservation area that will permanently protect approximately 40,000 acres around West Bay, including 33 miles of undeveloped shoreline and an additional 44 miles of creeks and tributaries. Without the airport relocation, the West Bay Preservation Area and the West Bay Sector Plan both evaporate.
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