Future of small Wakulla airport up in the air: Residents rally before commission vote

Article Courtesy of  The Tallahassee Democrat

By Christopher Cann

Published September 20, 2022


William Russell, a retired Tallahassee Fire Department battalion chief, was home one night nearly a decade ago when he felt "excruciating pain."

A member of the Wakulla County volunteer fire department at the time, he called his colleagues as well as his wife to hurry to his home.

Russell, 73, didn't know at the time that he had suffered an aortic artery rupture. A tear ripped through the wall of his aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body — a life-threatening emergency.

The fire department brought him oxygen and coordinated with local 911 dispatchers. Within an hour, they met a helicopter crew at the Wakulla County Airport, which rushed him to a North Florida hospital.

Doctors later said his survival was a "miracle," Russell remembered. If he had been checked in just an hour or two later, he would be dead.

Among the emergency responders and the surgeons, Russell credits the existence of the small Wakulla County Airport for his survival.

"It was a lifesaver," he told the Democrat Friday. "You don't normally survive an aortic aneurysm bursting. My doctor still says I should be looking up at the grass instead of down."

A C-145 used in training at the Wakulla County Airport


The survival of Wakulla County's only airport, however, is in jeopardy, as Wakulla County Commissioners will consider shutting it down at their next public meeting Monday at 5 p.m., at the commission chambers, 29 Arran Road.

At the upcoming meeting, commissioners could decide whether to deactivate the airport's license, cease its operations and completely relinquish its stake in the airport's upkeep.
Decade-spanning strife over airport

Monday's decision will be the latest development in a decade-spanning back-and-forth between the county and the homeowners association for the Tarpine community, which includes many people who fly their own personal planes out of the airport.

If the county votes to fully separate from the airport, it will be turned over to the heirs of the original owner, Fenton Jones. Jones granted the airstrip to the county in 1963 with the stipulation that it remains public.

In April, Wakulla County commissioners voted to terminate the county’s operation and maintenance of the airport on the same day the Tarpine Owners Association rejected the county’s offer to transfer ownership, operation and maintenance of the airport to the HOA.

The airport currently needs to extend its 350-foot runway by another 50 feet to meet the FAA's requirements. Additionally the lighting, irrigation and a rotating beacon need to be restored.

The operations of the airport cost Wakulla County is less than $5,000 a year, according to the 2021-22 Wakulla County budget. The total county budget, meanwhile, is over $200 million. Required improvements to the non-compliant airport would also be covered by state and federal grant money.

Some local officials, however, see the airport as a burden that only services a small group of local plane owners.

"The county doesn't use it," said Chuck Hess, a Wakulla County Commissioner. "Most of the traffic is local and is from Tarpine homeowners."

Commissioner Randy Merritt agreed, and like Hess, believes it would have been in the best interest of the HOA to take ownership and responsibility of the facility, which the county offered in April.

"If we take the grant money, then we're obligated to keep it open and keep it in compliance," said Merritt. "Not only that, but in order to get it into compliance, we will have to do eminent domain on surrounding property owners, which I don't want to do that either."

Eminent domain allows a government agency to take privately owned land for compensation as long as it's for public use.

The HOA says accepting ownership of the airport is not viable mainly because of the financial burden required to bring the airport into compliance, said HOA airport committee member Sheryl Kuersteiner.

"We're a relatively small homeowners association," she said, adding the airport wouldn't stay open very long if the HOA picked up the construction bills required to restore and maintain the airport.

The HOA would prefer not to privatize the airport so it can maintain its public-use quality that benefits traveling aviators as well as agencies including the U.S. military, hurricane response and emergency operations, Kuersteiner added.
'It is vital': Military personnel and local agencies support Wakulla Co. Airport

Military personnel from three different military bases use the Wakulla airport for training: an Air Force base in Okaloosa County; Moody Air Force Base, near Valdosta, Ga.; and a special operations wing out of Duke Field in Pensacola.

In 2019, a commander from the Moody Air Force base wrote a letter in support of the airport's continued operation under the county.

"Due to the coastal features and wildlife areas that encompass much of the panhandle coast, it is vital that Wakulla County Airport remains open," Kevin P. Geoffroy wrote.

"It's key geographic location makes it uniquely suited for crew swaps and provides the most safety for the ... aircrew and pararescuemen during an emergency."

Another outspoken supporter of the airport has been Franklin County's Emergency Management administrators.

In January 2020, Pamela Brownell, the director of Franklin County Emergency Management, wrote a letter in support of the creation of the Wakulla County Airport Authority — an independent special district.

The special district would have allowed the airport to keep its open-use accessibility while being maintained by local aviation enthusiasts independent of county oversight.

The bill, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, never made it out of committee.

In her letter, Brownell said the airport is essential as a staging area to air drop and distribute emergency supplies during times of disaster — a thesis tested during Hurricane Michael, in which the airport became a safe area to drop supplies for in-need Wakulla and Franklin county residents.

"From that strategic location, the response time and ease of access in getting those supplies to those in need was immeasurable," Brownell wrote. "It is my firm belief that the loss of the Wakulla County Airport would directly affect the response capabilities of both counties and ultimately affect the citizens we serve."

County poll shows widespread support for the airport's continued operation

A survey commissioned by Citizens for Wakulla Airport group shows that 86% of Wakulla residents strongly support keeping the local airport open.

The survey was made up of 169 responses from county residents picked in a "random sample of the Florida Voter File" and was collected between Sept. 2-7, 2022, according to Hammerhead Communications, which is representing homeowners.

Hammerhead Communications is a public relations firm run by Skip Foster, a former publisher and president of the Tallahassee Democrat.

"86% of county voters strongly favor keeping the Wakulla Airport open," the survey read, "with 71% saying they “strongly” support doing so and another 16% 'somewhat' in support."

One of those supporters is Bill Russell, the volunteer fireman who was saved after he was life flighted from the airport a decade ago.

"I think it was just wrong," he said about the county's recent actions regarding the airport. "I don't understand it."

Kuersteiner, the HOA spokesperson said that while it is unlikely that commissioners will reverse their decision, she and her fellow Tarpine community residents will show up to voice their position at Monday's commission meeting.

"We've tried to do everything that we can to promote the airport and to keep it open," she said. "And we'll be working until the very last day trying to make sure that the airport survives and it remains open for the public for Wakulla County citizens, Floridians and beyond."