Florida Airport Tower Put On Hold

JANUARY 17, 1998

Saturday reports that a Federal Aviation Administration ruling concerning the Boca Raton Airport will freeze up funds that would allow for a new control tower. The tower is controversial because its completion would allow for heavier traffic at the Boca Raton airport. Area residents fear the noise that more traffic would bring, while city officials fear the current air traffic congestion as a safety hazard.

The article says the state of Florida has frozen $1.1 million for a new control tower at the city airport because of a federal ruling that accuses the airport of giving Boca Aviation a monopoly on aircraft services. The state Department of Transportation's decision to withhold funds will delay construction of the tower at least several months, and possibly longer, while the airport seeks a hearing to overturn the FAA's ruling.

According to the report, the Boca Raton Airport was about to award a construction contract for the tower, planning to break ground in the spring. Airport officials had hoped to open the tower by next winter. Instead, the Airport Authority is now caught between two costly and unpleasant choices: Fight the FAA ruling and indefinitely delay the tower project, or kill its lease with Boca Aviation, which would immediately restore the tower funds but probably result in a lawsuit for breach of contract. On Friday, airport officials said they will stick with their plan to fight the FAA ruling, despite the state's decision to suspend tower funds.

The report continues to explain how the airport has hired a Washington, D.C.-based firm, Spiegel & McDiarmid, to handle its case. "We clearly think we're right (in awarding the lease to Boca Aviation), and I think the state acted prematurely because the FAA's ruling isn't final," said Rick Murdoch, the airport's local counsel. Airport Authority Chairman Phil Modder could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The FAA, the article goes on, in a preliminary ruling last month, found that the airport violated federal rules and showed favoritism when it awarded Boca Aviation, the airport's sole maintenance operator, a lease for the last undeveloped 20 acres at the airport. The FAA made its ruling after a complaint was filed by Stuart Jet Center, a competing maintenance operator that lost out to Boca Aviation in its bid for the land.

Boca Aviation plans a $2.5 million expansion, including a new avionics center and additional hangar space. "I know the airport feels its lease with Boca Aviation is completely beyond reproach, but the FAA ruling very clearly casts some doubt on whether the airport's decision was above board," said DOT's Downing. Downing said the state has not set a deadline to kill the funds altogether.

The article says the tower has been a key issue in the debate over airport noise. Many homeowners think it will lead to an increase in jet traffic, while aviation officials and many pilots call it a critical addition to an airport growing so fast that the skies above Boca Raton are dangerously congested. "Anything that interferes with the construction of a control tower and affects the safety and ability to control noise at the airport would be very distressing," said Dave Freudenberg, president of the Boca Raton Pilots' Association.

Since 1990, traffic at the airport has increased 51.6 percent. FAA officials have estimated that 160,000 aircraft will take off or land at the airport each year by the next decade. This week, the FAA was at the airport to update its traffic projections. Officials counted 425 takeoffs and landings on Wednesday alone. "We need the tower, but the question is, can we afford to do it without the state's help? and I don't think we can," said airport manager Nelson Rhodes. Downing said the state is as anxious to build the tower as are airport officials. "We would love to participate in this project, and we agree it's a safety issue because of the dramatic mix of propeller and jet traffic in Boca," Downing said. "But we can't be asked to go outside state law to do it."