South Carolina Creates Software to Facilitate Airport-Friendly Development

Ken Wysocky
Published in: 

The South Carolina Aeronautics Commission (SCAC) is developing a software program to help local land-use planners assess whether proposed commercial and residential developments are compatible with airport operations and safety zones.

A law enacted last year by the South Carolina legislature spurred the $500,000 project. Title 55, as the law is known, effectively requires local planning agencies to involve state aviation authorities in decisions about development around airports. SCAC led the push for the new legislation.

If the software program is successful, it could serve as a national blueprint for airport officials in other states who want to protect airports from adjacent developments that threaten to stifle growth plans and/or pose safety hazards.



Project: Land-Use Compatibility Software
Developed For: Local planners & developers
Developed By: South Carolina Aeronautics
Cost: $500,000
Funding: 90% FAA, 10% SC Aeronautics Commission
Components: Geographic Information System platform integrated with existing hardware
Airports Affected: 68 public-use facilities
Availability Target: June 2014
Software Design: Woolpert
Software Testing: Montgomery Consulting Group
Criteria Development: Mead & Hunt
Airspace Surface Development:
Capitol Airspace Group
Benefits: Preventing commercial & residential developments from encroaching on airport operations & expansion plans; improved safety

The land-use assessment software, which will be accessible via the SCAC website and use the agency’s Geographic Information System (GIS) platform, is expected to be operational by June. The software is designed to help local planning and permitting agencies comply with the law, which requires them to ensure that proposed developments don’t interfere with South Carolina’s 68 public-use airports, explains Mihir Shah, lead aviation planner for the state aeronautics commission.

FAA is funding 90% of the software project via an Airport Improvement Program grant, and SCAC will pay for the balance, Shah reports.

“In general, development around airports has become a problem in the last 15 years or so, especially during the housing boom,” he notes. “These airports are engines in their local economies, and to encroach on them with incompatible land use reduces their utility. We’re basically eroding the economic value of our airports.”

Inconsistent Enforcement

Although most counties in South Carolina have standard height and hazard ordinances that limit the elevation of trees and other structures near airports, local officials don’t always apply them, notes Shah. Additionally, land-use planning projects performed by third-party consultants are sometimes inadequate, he adds. In rare cases, structures are erected without building permits.

Inconsistent enforcement has backed many South Carolina airports into untenable positions and blocked their expansion plans, observes Shah. In short, it’s hard to extend a runway when there’s a 500-home subdivision in the way.

“In some cases, we’ve seen airports close down and build new facilities (elsewhere) because the development around them got out of control,” says Paul Akers, senior associate and geospatial aviation project manager for Woolpert, the design, geospatial and infrastructure-management firm that’s quarterbacking the software project. “Some communities are effectively shooting themselves in the foot by approving bad developments.”

Shah points to Hilton Head Airport (HHH) as a facility that demonstrates the need for Title 55. An aerial photograph taken in 1973 shows the airport surrounded by vast swaths of green, undeveloped land; a photo of the same area in 2007 shows the airport beset by developments on nearly all sides.

“It’s essentially now shoehorned into its location,” he relates. “In 1973, there was almost nothing around it.”

Aerial photos taken of Mount Pleasant Regional Airport (LRO), just outside of Charleston, demonstrate that development also squeezes general aviation airports. Photos from 1995 and 2007 show a similarly dramatic increase in residential development around the once-rural airport.

“There used to be nothing but forests around it, then subdivisions popped up,” Shah notes. “God forbid if a plane ever veered off course.”

Compatibility Questions

According to Shah, SCAC hopes Title 55 will “put more teeth” in height-and-hazard standards and land-use ordinances. The new statute also requires local planning and building departments to notify the aeronautics commission of developments proposed within specified zones around the airport.

“We developed a template of airport safety zones and airport land-use zones,” he explains. “The county or municipality in which the development is proposed has to notify us and, by law, we have 30 days to comment on whether it’s compatible or not. Then, it’s up to them to issue a permit.”

The software currently in development will speed SCAC’s turnaround time, adds Shah. Local governments who want to issue permits more quickly could receive a compatibility assessment in as little as seven to 14 days.

If an agency approves a proposed development but SCAC determines that it presents a clear and present danger to an airport, the commission has the right to take legal action to stop it from proceeding.

Any citizen or developer will have access to the SCAC website to perform a preliminary analysis on a prospective development’s compatibility. If they decide to proceed, they can notify the local planning agency with jurisdiction, which then logs into the system and creates a case file and begins the official assessment. Akers compares the process to using on-line tax-preparation programs, which walk users through a series of questions, and each answer prompts further analytical questions.

“Basically, they start by picking a point on a map,” he explains. “Then, it starts asking them a series of questions, such as the height of the structure, for example. Each answer is evaluated against certain criteria.

“If the height is okay, it proceeds to land-use issues – for example, is it residential or commercial, high or low density and will it include storage of fuel or hazardous materials. After all the questions are completed, the program comes up with a scorecard and tells the agency if the project is compatible, conditional or incompatible with land-use zones around the airport.”

If a proposal is compatible, the local agency can issue a permit. If a development is judged incompatible or conditional, the local planning agency can suggest that the developer move the project to a more compatible spot on the property, find another location or perhaps change the project’s design by altering the height of a building, for instance. A local planning agency or developer that receives an incompatible or conditional finding can also ask for an additional SCAC review.

In addition to Woolpert, three other consultants are helping the state aeronautics commission develop the software. Land-use planning consultant Mead & Hunt is refining and documenting the various airport zones and compatibility criteria; Capitol Airspace Group is developing the airspace surfaces for individual airports; and Montgomery Consulting Group is testing the software.

“We’re using an agile development approach to develop the software and the maps … the contractors can deploy them and play with them and make changes as needed,” says Akers.

Setting an Example

South Carolina officials see Title 55 as breaking important new ground. Kansas and Washington offer developers an airspace-analysis tool that evaluates project-elevation data, but it doesn’t include mechanisms to assess land-use compatibility or regulate development permits.

“So developers there can still build a high-density residential development next to an airport, as long as the height is okay,” Akers explains. “Nothing out there compares to South Carolina’s more comprehensive approach to this issue.”

Akers consequently foresees other states emulating South Carolina’s approach. “I think it will start a trend and get people thinking about all the implications (of incompatible development),” he predicts.
So far, local planners in South Carolina appear responsive to the Title 55 requirements. According to Shah, the commission is already fielding e-mails from planners who want to know what SCAC thinks about potential projects.

“The dialogue has already started … and we’re developing relationships with local planners,” he observes. “Historically, we haven’t worked closely with local land-use planners, who are the eyes and ears on the ground. This (website) technology is cool and fun, but if we can’t get trust and buy-in from planning officials, they may not make it a priority or will do it grudgingly and it won’t be as effective as it could be.

“We want them to feel good about sharing information,” he adds, noting that local planners typically support home rule and sometimes resent state-government intrusion. “We want to ensure they’re our partners fairly early in the process. And we’re not just talking about always saying no to things. We want to say, ‘You can put a mall or a factory here, just not over here.’ We want to collaborate with these folks, not throw another statute at them.”

Surrounded: Why Do IncompatibleDevelopments Plague Some Airports?

The passage of legislation that requires local planning agencies in South Carolina to work with the state aeronautics commission raises an interesting question: How and why do airports get surrounded by incompatible developments?

The reasons vary in South Carolina, says Mihir Shah, lead aviation planner for the state aeronautics commission. Based on years watching South Carolina’s airport scene, he offers the following food-for-thought observations about how political clout, policies and public perception affect development around airports.

• Management — especially at general aviation airports — often focuses on day-to-day operations at the expense of long-term planning. “It takes a broader, proactive perspective for airports to be successful partners in local land-use management,” explains Shah.

• Commercial-service airports are typically more successful than general aviation facilities in partnering with local governments to manage land-use compatibility, as they have the in-house expertise and resources or are better able to hire specialized consultants. “But (commercial airports) can still run into occasional permitting challenges,” he notes.

• An active real-estate development industry — especially in coastal regions and around major metropolitan areas — sometimes wields a disproportional amount of influence in local development issues. “Airport-compatible land use unfortunately can fall through the cracks without an equally vocal champion,” cautions Shah.

• Sometimes the general public does not look favorably on its local airport. Such sentiment can result in energized groups that stop airport expansion instead of focusing on effectively managing the land around it in a compatible manner.

• Airports and their consultants often prefer to lay more pavement than manage surrounding land. Economically and politically, it’s far easier to extend a runway on existing airport property than to change zoning ordinances or obtain new land and/or easements — especially in states where private property rights are highly valued. “A runway extension gets a ribbon-cutting and a press release, while obtaining an aviation easement or enacting a zoning ordinance does not. In fact, it may receive negative press instead,” he explains.

• The criteria in FAA grant programs and policies often make it easier for airports to invest in construction projects, rather than implement land-acquisition and management programs.

• FAA land-use compatibility guidance, standards and metrics are largely limited to height, noise and wildlife-attractant issues, with less-specific guidance about density of developments (as measured by occupancy or persons per acre). This poses a challenge for local governments — and state airport commissions — to develop tools for land-use standards, as there aren’t always national FAA standards to apply.



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