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Wakulla County Delegation Hears From Citizens On Push For Airport Authority

Ryan Dailey

Legislators representing Wakulla County heard from its residents on Tuesday about their priorities for the coming legislative session. One of the hot issues of the night was the creation of an airport authority.

Wakulla County wants out of the airport business, but some in the community want the chance to take over its public use facility. Sherry Kuersteiner lives in Wakulla’s Tarpine community, which collectively keeps up maintenance at the airport.

“We are residents of the fly-in community adjacent to the airport and this is something that we would really like to see happen,” Kuersteiner said at the meeting.

Kuersteiner has been one of those most vocal about the push for an airport authority with its own governing board that would own, operate and maintain the small airport.

In 2017, Wakulla Commissioners voted to end a public-private partnership that existed between the county and the Tarpine community. The agreement saw the County own the airport infrastructure, and the Tarpine residents cover maintenance. Now, Kuersteiner says an authority would be the best way to keep it up and running.

“The authority would have the right to apply for and receive grant money derived from taxes on aviation fuel, for capital improvements,” she said. “And the use of these grants to fund improvements, such as lighting, creates a safer airport for people, and property in the air and on the ground.”

Proponents also say an airport authority, and the improvements they say would come with it, would raise property values.

The County still has ownership of the airport, but wants to see that change. It also wants the airport to continue existing, which is why it’s pushing forward the idea of an authority.

Commission chair Chuck Hess says creating an authority is one of his top legislative priorities.

“This will allow Wakulla County to continue to have a public airport,” Hess told North Florida legislators. “County staff will be contacting the House and Senate staff to coordinate a date for the public meeting and legal notices required so that a bill can be filed.”

The two-member Wakulla County Delegation consists of Democratic Senator Bill Montford, who will be going into his final legislative session representing the district, and newly-minted Republican Representative Jason Shoaf of Port St. Joe. Montford explained the process of filing a local bill to those in attendance, which requires he and Shoaf hold a meeting on the matter.

“You have to advertise it for 30 days. And that request of course will come to us from the County Commission, and if we get that, then the representative and I will discuss it,” Montford said. “And I’m sure our decision will reflect what the local government here wants.”

With apparent momentum behind the possibility of a local bill, the wheels seem to be in motion for an airport authority. Kuersteiner says there’s no state funding request tied to its creation. But it’s not entirely without opposition. Bill Catalina is a pilot who lives in the area, and has used the airstrip for years.

“About the airport authority designation – an authority over what? Senator and Representative, our little grass airstrip got along just fine for 38 years, all by its lonesome,” Catalina said, later adding he felt like a “lone ranger” speaking against the proposed airport authority.

The 2020 legislative session kicks off in January.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.