Proposed $60 million plan for Georgetown airport angers neighbors

12:00 a.m. Monday, Jan. 1, 2018 Local

A 20-year proposed master plan for the Georgetown Municipal Airport that includes a longer runway, the possible buyout of up to 30 homes and the addition of 220,000 square feet of hangars at a cost of nearly $60 million has renewed calls from local residents to move the facility to another location.

“These are major expansion plans,” said Rich Gottleib, who bought his home this summer. “When I bought near the airport, this was not in the plans I saw for it. This is really valuable land. Sell it to some developer, get rid of it and put the airport out in Hutto or somewhere there is open land,” he said.

The consultants who did the master plan, Coffman Associates, have estimated that moving the 533-acre airport and bringing it up to its current capabilities is not a viable alternative because it would cost up to $321 million.

The proposed master plan, which calls for $59.5 million to be spent on 52 projects over the 20-year period, will be considered by the Georgetown City Council in late February.

The plan has identified about $50 million of the costs as being eligible for grants from the Texas Department of Transportation, with the rest being covered by the airport, said Russ Volk, the airport manager.

Airport traffic includes business jets and private planes but no commercial aircraft. The airfield has two runways and 45 facilities, including a terminal, a control tower, a fire station and hangars. The airport is self-sustaining and is not paid for with any property tax money.

The number of takeoffs and landings per year is estimated to increase from just under 100,000 in 2016 to about 133,000 by 2036 in the plan.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends that airports update their master plans every five to 10 years. Georgetown’s last update was in 2005.

“All of Central Texas is experiencing a growth in aviation as well as population,” Volk said. “Updating the master plan provided an opportunity to evaluate the potential impacts on local changes in the aviation industry, local population changes, as well as the overall regional aviation industry following an economic downturn in the mid to late 2000s.”

The city has been operating the airport, about 3 miles north of Georgetown’s historic downtown, since 1945.

The master plan calls for the north-south runway to be extended by 500 feet at both ends. The extension is necessary to give jets the minimum recommended length to take off during hot weather when they do not perform as well as on cooler days, said Mike Dmyterko, a principal with Coffman Associates who put together the master plan. The extension would cost about $3.1 million.

Gottleib said in a letter to city officials that the runway extension would only “benefit some portion of the already small number of jets based at the airport on very hot days when they are fully loaded for long flight plans.”

Volk disagreed, saying the master plan showed the extension would benefit up to 7,400 takeoffs and landings per year.

The master plan also recommends that the FAA work with TxDOT to buy 17 homes on the north end and five homes on the south end of the north-south runway plus one home on the east end of the east-west runway because they are in areas called “runway protection zones” that need to be as clear as possible to protect people on the ground. The buyout is estimated at $5.5 million. The plan calls for the buyout only if homeowners are willing to sell.

The runways protection zones “were there first, and homes were built within them second,” Dmyterko said.

The plan calls for the 48 homes in the protected zone to be bought out, but the airport has asked the FAA to make changes that would decrease that number to 23.

The plan also calls for the FAA, working with TxDOT, to buy out seven homes on the north side of the north-south runway in a zone called an “object free area” that should be clear in case a plane veers off a runway, Dmyterko said. The cost of that project is $1.5 million.

Other big projects recommended in the master plan include spending $5 million on each runway to upgrade the pavement, more than $11 million for taxi-lane design and reconstruction, $750,000 for a terminal building expansion, and $540,000 for a maintenance building. The additional hangar space that is recommended would be privately built.

Currently 318 airplanes are based at the airport with a waiting list of more than 180 airplanes, Volk said.

Carl Norris, a founder of a group called Airport Concerned Citizens, said an environmental impact statement should be done before any of the projects in the master plan are undertaken. The airport is in the heart of a developed part of the city and is on top of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, he said. Planes use fuel with lead in it that spews over the homes they fly over, he said.

He also said upgrading the pavement on the runways would allow “heavier, more dangerous” aircraft to use the airfield. Norris said there has never been an environmental impact statement done for any of the master plans for the airport but there should have been one.

Dmyterko said the FAA doesn’t require an environmental impact statement for master plans. If undertaken, some of the proposed projects — including the modification of the runway — would probably require an environmental assessment considered to be a “high level” review, Dmyterko said.

Only the FAA can initiate an environmental impact statement for an airport project, and the FAA develops those studies and pays for them fully when required.

The level of environmental study that Norris wants, an environmental impact statement, is required by the FAA only for a “rare handful” of airports per year, Dmyterko said. 

He also disagreed that upgrading the pavement on the two runways would bring bigger planes to the airport. The runways are being reconstructed to accommodate the weight of airplanes that are already landing there because they are heavier than what the pavement was designed for, he said.

Georgetown City Council Member Ty Gipson, whose district includes the airport, said the master plan was being proposed to make the airfield safer and not to bring in larger aircraft such as “big FedEx planes.”

Other concerns expressed by nearby residents about the proposed master plan include noise and flooding issues.

“Where I live in Berry Creek, the airplanes already blow the leaves off my roof when they fly over,” said Wendy Dew, who bought her home in 2015. “It’s so noisy it wakes us up at 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. with big turbo planes coming in. … It wasn’t like that when we first got here.”

Alyson DeMaio, who also lives near the airport in the Golden Oaks neighborhood, said runoff from the airport already has caused flooding in her neighborhood due to a culvert project, and she said she was worried that the extension of the north-south runway would cause more flooding.

“I think the community as a whole would like to see (the city staff) truly look at an alternative airport site,” she said.

Octavio Garza, director of public works for Georgetown, disagreed, saying that DeMaio lives in a flood plain and that engineering studies done on the culvert project that started in May for a ditch running alongside the north-south runway showed the culverts decreased runoff.

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