Sky high potential- if we can plan for it

The Martin County Airport is a topic that invokes so many emotions. For our aviators, it is a well-positioned and highly convenient location to depart and arrive at. Couple in the addition of the new customs facility a few years back, and Witham Field is now an even more convenient location for Martin County aviators to call home. Though the costs may not be all that favorable for hanger space (but what is affordable in Martin County anymore?), as a whole, most aviators seem very happy with what our community airport has to offer.

Residents, too, seem to be fairly content with Witham’s placement and operations. As I type this, I am listing to the planes flying overhead and thinking of the 60,000 patrons who are enjoying the airshow this weekend. I have friends who utilize Witham to fly both crew and materials to the Bahamas for regular work projects, and I know some who work at the airport itself- the bread winning profession of the house hold. Residents also seem to be appreciative of the tax dollars that the airport helps to put into our community. Substantial business tax receipts from multinational companies like Daher, and national and state wide companies alike all help to subsidize the cost of governmental operations for Martin County Residents.

Of course, there are the select few who are on the other side of the coin. Residents who detest the noise they hear from incoming and departing aircraft. Those who worry about low flying craft on approach that may land on their driveways long before making it to the runway. There are also the complaints of environmental concerns from aircraft and their emissions over close by residential neighborhoods. I for one don’t begrudge those who voice their concerns. They are legitimate concerns after all. Aircraft do make noise; Aircraft engines do have emissions unique to them that we don’t see in automobiles or trains for that matter; and encroachment of development closer to the airport does mean aircraft are now coming within a much closer altitude to homes. After all, when on approach you are descending closer to the ground. The more objects constructed in the path of the airstrip, the likelier you are to come into close proximity to those objects.

Though I agree with the concerns, I don’t lay those concerns at the feet of the Airport, or the county staff that operate it. The fact is simple: we encroached on the airport; it did not expand to meet us.

Let’s take a quick jaunt down memory lane to demonstrate this fact.

Witham Field was originally developed from a nearly 900-acre tract of land donated from Martin County residents to the Department of War for the purpose of building an Army Air Corps station on site. A small field was existing prior to this, but its infrastructure was not something most would view as an airport today. Because of the operational organization of aerial operations at the time, the Army Air Corps only operated on the wester half of Florida. As such, the land was transferred to the Department of the Navy, who (after buying the land from the county) built Auxiliary Naval Air Station Vero Beach (Witham Field today). The Navy ran the military operations center from Witham for half a decade before consolidating operations. When the field was no longer needed by the newly formed (1947) Department of Defense, it was returned to the county for local usage and responsibility. Soon after, defense contractor Northop Grumman would lease the airport and rename it Plant 77. For nearly 3 decades, the facility was used as the final assembly site and testing center for several military aircraft.

*As a side note, many will undoubtedly recall the 2019 tragic accident at the Stuart Airshow that took the life of a local pilot/physician. That aircraft has special significance because it is the primary product of Grumman to be built here in Martin County during the Plant 77 years.

It was not until 1994 that Grumman reduced its footprint enough to welcome Martin County government onto property in a controlling manner. The county would develop an airport department and begin running the airport as a municipal airfield.

Almost 30 years has passed since the county took over, and in that time, there have been plenty of developments. Updating of facilities to accommodate civilian usage. Establishment of a definite barrier (and subsequent relinquishment of land that became a county golf course) and of course multiple safety improvements to the tower and runways.

Why does all this matter? It’s simple: When the airport was built it was in the middle of nowhere. When Grumman took over, it was still far outside of town. Recall that Martin County’s only stop light was miles away at the corner of Kanner and US1 when Plant 77 was dedicated. Martin Counties population has grown from 100,000 in 1990 to almost 170,000 today. For those of you computer inclined, you can review satellite images of Witham Field in 1994, and compare it to today. You will be amazed at the grown of development in that area. The infill of lots that were originally vacant in the surrounding communities. The further development of business and commercial housing (condo’s) that are near-by, and of course the natural change of ownership of existing homes.

What do we do with today’s lesson?

I would argue that this is a fantastic example of how our population growth and our lack of willingness to address our outdated Growth Management Plan has forced us into making split decisions…..most of them with long-term negative effects.

When we refuse to allow for urban infill because we want to save green space, and when we refuse to expand our urban services boundary because we don’t want urban sprawl, we are forced to accept the negative consequences of mismatched infrastructure.

Population growth is a guarantee. A need for green space in the USB is a top priority to most (myself included). And a rational urban services boundary that does not foster uncontrollable growth is a no-brainer. So why are we so opposed to having a real discussion about where we are today, and how we want this place to look tomorrow? We can’t cling onto a plan that was developed before my children or I were born and expect it to be applicable to today- especially after 3 decades of constant variances and free passes given to developers in practical application.

Just as the fair-grounds, county motor pool, airport and school motor pool are highly constrained in a now burgeoning “residential area”, so too are many other places in our county. After all- Hammock creek residential golf community sits adjacent to land zoned for “industrial” usage. I doubt they would want a packing house across the street from their homes. But maybe that’s what it’s going to take for us to finally sit down for a real discussion.

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