By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- After more than four years of public debate, the Martin County Commission paved the way for Stuart's Witham Field to become an official U.S. port of entry after voting 3-2 Aug. 4 to construct a $1.4 million customs office at the airport.
The long-awaited vote -- with Commissioners Sarah Heard and Ed Fielding dissenting -- came after a final presentation by airport director George Stokus and a failed last-minute effort by commissioners Heard and Fielding to put the matter on the November ballot.
"We still have time to get this on the ballot on Nov. 4 to figure out whether or not the tax payers of Martin County would support this ordinance," Commissioner Heard said.
Immediately afterward, Commissioner Anne Scott -- who had previously opposed the customs facility -- said approving it now was the right thing for the governing board to do.
"What started out as a poor conceived, poorly thought out boondoggle based on unreliable information... has morphed into a thorough, straightforward proposal," she said. "For once, we know what we are doing, what the risks are and our exit strategy should it not succeed."
The planned customs facility will be unique in the nation in that it would serve both marine and aviation passengers. Currently aircraft in bound internationally for Stuart must first land either in Fort Pierce or West Palm Beach for customs processing before continuing on to Witham Field. This forces aircraft owners to use extra fuel and pay landing fees twice. Marine passengers must currently use a telephone system upon arrival to schedule a customs visit to either facility as soon as possible after arrival.
To help pay for the Stuart operation, Stokus plans on charging for the normally free services, which he believes will be cheaper and more convenient than the current hassle for incoming international passengers.
More than 20 governmental officials, industry representatives and area residents addressed the commission during the public hearing, with most speaking out in favor of the project.
"We see this to be a building block for the economic and tourism plans for the future of our city," Stuart Mayor Troy McDonald said. "In addition, Congressman Patrick Murphy supports this because it may help us with the inlet dredging and funding for the new control tower, which could ultimately save us millions of dollars a year."
Ron Rose, executive director of the Jensen Beach Chamber of Commerce, asked commissioners to find common ground in the controversy in order to support Martin County's marine and tourism industries.
"Please don't continue to say no to projects that will not threaten our quality of life and be beneficial to our economy," he said. "We really have to get past this 'us against them' mentality."
Opponents of the facility have expressed concern taxpayers would get stuck with paying the estimated $220,000 annual operating costs if it proves unprofitable. In order to allay their fears, several local industry officials recently formed the Martin Marine-Aviation Alliance and are offering to donate up to $50,000 annually for the first three years to ensure the new facility gets off the ground. Stokus assured commissioners the facility could be closed if proven unsuccessful without having to repay a $900,000 Federal Department of Transportation grant, as long as revenue from the structure went back into airport coffers. The funding also includes $125,000 from the Airport Enterprise Fund.
Those assurances were enough to sway Commissioner Scott as the swing vote but didn't convince much of the opposition who doubted that travelers would be willing to pay for customs services in Stuart. Other area residents expressed concern over rising contamination from additional flights.
About 1,200 international flights arrived at Witham Field last year after customs processing elsewhere, and Stokus estimates that number could rise up to five percent with a local customs office.
Martin County resident Myra Galoci reminded the commission that the Federal Aviation Administration has always had the final word on local airport decisions.
"The FAA has not and refuses to sign anything saying we can close the customs facility if it doesn't work," Ms. Galoci said. "In 1998, when the FAA had not contributed anything to the illegal extension of the runway at Witham Field, they still were able to say no to us when we realized our mistake and wanted to put it back."
Southern Martin County resident Marge Ketter peppered commissioners with several questions as she looked for assurance the customs office would not significantly alter the local quality of life.
"If the 1,200 aircraft that went to other airports now come to Witham, won't that increase activity and the airport become more than a community airport?" she asked. "When the word gets around, who can say the larger planes currently not permitted won't try to come here?
In response to questions from Commissioner Scott about the facility's potential effect on local air traffic, Stokus said it would bring the airport to about 29 percent of its total operating capacity but nowhere near the all-time record level of 125,000 flights seen in 2004.
"When the economy is doing well, and people are doing flight training, we're up 20 percent in flight training traffic," Mr. Stokus said. Our operational numbers seem to correspond really well with what the economy is doing. The 2004 level was the top peak of domestic flight training."
Stokus also hopes to raise revenue from the significant number of boaters departing the St. Lucie Inlet en route to the Bahamas. Commissioner Heard expressed doubt about Stokus' projected marine usage of the new facility.
"According to your conclusions, one-fourth of the boaters from the state will clear from Witham Field," she said.
Opponent Glenda Burgess told commissioners she would support a customs office in Martin County but only on one condition.
"I support most of our airport activities," she said. "I support a longer runway, bigger jets and I support a customs facility, when you move the airport west of the Turnpike."
The next steps toward the customs facility becoming a reality at Witham Field is to request the FDOT grant money and begin the bidding process, Stokus added.