New Airport Master Plan Process Highlights County Staff Bungling

By Paul Gable

Current concepts for a new airport master plan for Myrtle Beach International Airport are in direct violation of an existing agreement between City of Myrtle Beach and Horry County governments demonstrating what must be considered incompetence by Horry County Government senior staff.

Approximately three weeks ago, Horry County Department of Airports officials appeared before the City of Myrtle Beach Planning Commission to share concepts to be included in a new Airport Master Plan the county will submit to the Federal Aviation Administration within the next year.

Prior to the appearance before the city, the airport plan was the subject of a virtual public meeting held by airport officials, a required step in the planning process.

The general overview being presented is that in the next 20 years, the required planning span for the FAA, Myrtle Beach International Airport will require more terminal and concourse space, approximately 28 passenger gates and expanded parking. For at least the past two years, airport officials have also discussed converting at least part of one of the current taxiways into a second runway for general aviation use only.

What hasn’t been discussed to date by airport officials or other county officials is the fact that this planning is in direct violation of a 2004 Planned Unit Development zoning district for the airport approved by city and county officials.

The 2004 Myrtle Beach International Airport PUD specifically limits growth of airport facilities to a maximum of 18 fixed passenger gates and one runway.

These restrictions are not only ignored in the new master plan, they appear to be unknown to many of the officials involved in the planning process.

Additionally, while airport officials felt the need to advise the city planning commission of concepts for the new master plan, this same information has yet to be presented to Horry County Council members.

Horry County Council is elected by the people to be the policy making body for county government. The county administrator is hired by county council to ensure council policies are implemented and carried out through the daily administration of county government.

The Horry County Department of Airports is a county government department. The airport director is hired by the county administrator and responsible to the administrator for the running of the airport in accordance with the policies of council.

A policy set by county council in 2004 dictates the airport is restricted to no more than one runway and 18 fixed passenger gates. This has not changed!

Prior to holding a public hearing and making a presentation to Myrtle Beach Planning Commission members for concepts that violate these restrictions, shouldn’t county airport and senior staff have advised county council of the new concepts for airport expansion and received approval from council before moving forward with these concepts for the airport?

What action do you imagine would be taken by county officials if a developer submitted and received approval for a PUD that restricted construction to 200 homes in a new development, then went ahead and built 600 homes within that development?

The ultimate responsibility for this failure to inform council and receive council approval lies with County Administrator Steve Gosnell. He is the man in charge of making sure county staff administers policy set by county council.

Gosnell was the head of the Infrastructure and Regulation Division of county government in 2004 when these restrictions were dictated by county council. Surely, he remembers the major debates among county council members and between city and county council members that led to these restrictions. If not, why not?

Where is the county attorney on this new master plan? Certainly, he should be aware and have advised Gosnell and airport staff of the restrictions contained in the 2004 airport PUD. If not, why not?

Why didn’t the current airport director go to the county council or at least the Infrastructure and Regulation Committee for approval before moving forward publicly with the airport expansion concepts? Was he even aware of the PUD restrictions? If not, why not?

Again, this comes back to Gosnell. Gosnell was appointed interim administrator and several months later administrator after the firing of Chris Eldridge. When appointed interim administrator, Gosnell wasn’t sure he wanted to be permanent administrator. During the several month interregnum, council member Johnny Vaught pushed Gosnell for the permanent appointment to other council members.

To this reporter, there appeared to be several other applicants for the job of administrator who would have been more dynamic choices than Gosnell. Several other council members who voted for Gosnell’s appointment expressed the thought at the time, ‘just give Gosnell his couple of years until he qualifies for full retirement, then go out and hire a ‘Mickey Mantle’ for the job.’

I would venture that the other two finalists for the job of administrator two years ago, Wayne Gray and Alan Clemmons, would have made certain that county council was the first to hear about the new airport master plan and would have provided input about the PUD restrictions prior to it going public.

Vaught secured his choice for administrator from a majority of council members. He says now he intends to challenge for county chairman next year. If he does file for chairman, he can explain to the voters of the county why the new airport master plan was so bungled under his administrator of choice.

Sadly, this new master plan brings a sense of déjà vu. Twenty years ago, airport staff was estimating three runways and a new passenger terminal on the west side of the airport that included 36 passenger gates at a cost of one-half billion dollars would be needed in the next 20 years. Yet, here we are 20 years later adequately handling current passenger traffic with one runway and 11 passenger gates.

Fortunately, that master plan was restricted and revised to the one runway, 18 gates maximums currently in place.

We didn’t need a ‘Cape Canaveral North’ in the south end of Myrtle Beach 20 years ago and we don’t need one now. The airport still handles only approximately 5% of the tourist traffic that comes to this area each year and that has been a consistent percentage throughout the decades of Horry County as a tourist destination.

There is a lesson in there that should have been learned 20 years ago, but apparently was not.

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