Ten years ago next month, the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority voted to close Smith Field. Resistance from pilots and others ultimately saved the small north-side air field, but legitimate concerns about encroaching development – a factor in the original decision – remain.
With that in mind, you might think an effort to protect this community's multimillion-dollar investment in Smith Field and the much-larger Fort Wayne International Airport and the safety and comfort of people living and working near them would win unanimous praise. But you would be wrong.
Matt Coffman doesn't question the intent of airport-area development guidelines included in new regulations that if approved by city and county officials could take effect next year. But as the co-owner of a business just a few hundred yards from the end of one of Smith Field's two runways, he has significant questions and concerns about some of the proposed means to that end.
Although development currently in place in the proposed “airport overlay districts” would be allowed to remain, “If I have a fire, under this proposal I would have to go through the new 'airport determination process' before I could rebuild,” said Coffman, who is also chief operating officer and general manager of New process Corp., which makes industrial labels at its plant at 310 W. Cook Road.
If reconstruction is denied, will he be compensated the property he can no longer use? “Is this a land grab?” Coffman asks.
Not in the least, insists Scott Hinderman, Fort Wayne's executive director of airports.
Hinderman and officials with the county's Department of Planning Services, which is supervising revisions to development guidelines, say the proposals simply clarify what is already happening, and will help prevent incompatible land use near the city's two airports.
“The problem is that the planners ask us to review (everything). But I don't want to review a canopy for a gas station in downtown Fort Wayne. I don't care,” Hinderman said.
So the proposed overlays create different zones surrounding the airports extending miles in every direction. In the closest two zones, 37 different uses – including hotels, day-care centers, country clubs, religious institutions and, yes, gas stations – will require special approval even if the land is properly zoned for those uses. In the zones farthest from the airports, only trailer parks and subdivisions require special approval. Coffman's business is located within the zone closest to Smith Field, which under the guidelines would allow planners to determine the height of his building should reconstruction be necessary.
That process is not as arbitrary as it may seem, Hinderman said. Local zoning laws already impose height guidelines, and state and federal regulations govern construction of tall structures near airports. And even if airport officials determine a project to be incompatible, the would-be developer can appeal that decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals. Fort Wayne International would itself be affected, since it owns hundreds of acres available for development.
“We'd even like to have a gas station one day,” He said.
So despite vagueness of the proposed changes, it appears likely that any existing building could be rebuilt under the new guidelines. That's not a guarantee, but no such guarantee currently exists, either.
Still, as the owner of a company that employs 20 people and may one day want to expand its 24,000-square-foot plant, Coffman – a former Marion County planner who believes haven't sufficiently explained the proposal to the public -- can't afford to take anything for granted. So he will wait and watch, as he should.
It's true that the “airport determination process” could be construed as an additional layer of bureaucracy at the very time city and county officials are supposedly working to promote development. But the near-demise of Smith Field is but one illustration of what can happen when development occurs in a vacuum.
In 2003, for example, airport officials expressed alarm when they learned a two-story house was under construction just 150 yeards from the end of a Smith Field runway. The following year, construction of 150 homes two miles from Fort Wayne International was threatened after airport officials expressed concerns about the Ashton Pointe neighborhood. In 2007 a 155-foot communications tower was proposed near a Smith Field runway, and in 2010 a proposed landfill southwest of Fort Wayne International also raised concerns.
For now, avoiding such real-world cases and the dangers they can create take priority over hypothetical problems that, should they materialize, can and should be corrected. People like Coffman will see to that.