South Portland can't stop Jetport runway expansion

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After months of resistance from the City Council, Portland International Jetport officials will bypass the city’s zoning process and move ahead with an expansion of the airport’s crosswind runway.

Councilors met behind closed doors with the city attorney Jan. 11 to discuss their legal rights regarding a proposed expansion that would extend the runway by 1,100 feet, bringing air traffic 600 feet closer to the Brick Hill neighborhood.

Last spring, the council amended Jetport zoning in South Portland to prohibit runway extensions, and there seemed to be enough votes on the council to block the project. 

But Mayor Tom Coward said there was nothing the city could do, since the project is being mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration in an effort to prevent aircraft overruns.

In cases where local regulations clash with federal mandates, Coward said, the federal rules win.

“They really don’t need a zone change to do what they need to do,” Coward said. “The airport is just going to exercise its rights to have the FAA tell it what to do and not us, as far as runway safety is concerned.”

Jetport Director Paul Bradbury said he will be sending a legal argument to the city in the coming days.

“We think the plan is appropriate,” Bradbury said. “The project is for safety and that’s the reason Congress does supersede local zoning ordinance, because they are the sole arbitrator of aviation safety.”

Bradbury said site work will begin this year, but the actual runway safety zone will not likely be built until next year, because of poor soils.

Some councilors were concerned that project would only increase noise problems associated with the Jetport, while some were concerned about the project’s impact on efforts to clean up Long Creek, an urban-impaired stream the city is under a federal mandate to restore.

A public vote on an amendment to the local zoning ordinance has been repeatedly delayed because city officials hoped to develop a plan to mitigate noise and environmental concerns.

Councilor Jim Hughes said the city seems to have lost the leverage to make that happen.

“Unless the airport decides it wants to do (the mitigation), there’s nothing we can do to control it,” Hughes said.

But Bradbury said any increased noise must remain within federal guidelines and the airport must comply with stringent storm-water standards for Long Creek. All of the necessary permits will be filed with local, state and federal officials.

Hughes, the District 5 representative who has opposed the runway expansion, said he appreciates Jetport officials reaching out to city officials, but said he is upset the airport is essentially doing “an end-around” the local zoning process.

“It’s annoying that we got this far only to find out they can go ahead and do this,” Hughes said. “It’s just been a tremendous waste of time and effort.”

Bradbury said the airport always seeks to first work with local officials to approve its projects. But in this case, safety concerns outweigh the concerns of elected officials.

“There is no question we want to be the perfect neighbor to the extent we can,” he said. “But airports come with baggage, noise being one of them.”

The Jetport has made some efforts to address noise concerns in the past, implementing a system to track complaints and associate them with specific flights. An incentive program was also introduced for pilots who approach the runway from the east over the Fore River, rather than coming in from the west over South Portland homes.

Hughes said he would have preferred the Jetport pursue other – albeit more expensive – options to improve runway safety. One option would have been to build a collapsible ramp at the end of the runway, similar to those built to stop runaway tractor-trailer trucks on highways.

Jetport officials, however, did not support that option because of its cost and increased maintenance needs.

The South Portland developments came a week after Jetport officials met with the Portland City Council about a $75 million expansion to the passenger terminal, which is in Portland. That  project would nearly double the size of the existing terminal, from 150,000 square feet to 280,000 square feet.

Jetport officials have said runway expansion is only meant to improve safety, not to increase its airline capacity. The crosswind runway is typically used only by smaller airplanes, unless weather conditions make it unsafe for the larger airplanes to use the main runway.

But Hughes said he is still concerned about the potential for more air traffic in the future.

“(The expansion) does permit the airport to land larger planes more frequently if they want to,” he said. “Right now, they say the don’t want to, but its the law of unintended consequences. We definitely don’t want larger flights on that runway.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]