INVESTIGATES: Push to allow homes at the end of Haller Airpark runway in Green Cove Springs

GREEN COVE SPRINGS, Fla. — A proposed 500-plot recreational vehicle resort in Clay County is set to be built off the end of an airport runway, and it’s sparked quite a battle between the developer, pilots and commissioners.

Action News Jax investigator Emily Turner found the county’s failure to follow state law set the stage for the debate, with public safety at the center of it all. Now, everyone involved is having to scramble to figure it out.

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The airport is licensed and is recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration, but the rules about what goes around it are up to the local government, and Clay County never made those rules. Now, a significant chunk of those RVs and semi-permanent trailers could be located in the flight path and in an area pilots call a “danger zone.”

It’s all happening off the end of the runway at Haller Airpark near Green Cove Springs. From 30,000 feet, Haller Airpark is a pilot’s paradise: part planned community, part airport. It also used to be in a part of Clay County that was quiet and solitary. On the floor of the county commission, however, Airpark President Joe Tierney said Haller is part of a much larger debate.

“You know,” Tierney said, “All of Florida is going to be occupied with houses everywhere. We know that’s coming, but we just want to be able to safely fly our airplanes.”

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Six hundred feet off the end of Haller’s runway is a proposed RV resort. It will host 500 RVs and semi-permanent trailers. The developer said he’s aware of the airport and is looking into possible problems, but didn’t want to comment further.

However, Tierney said 150 of these parcels would be in the flight path of planes taking off and landing.

That’s exactly when and where the National Transportation Safety Board said the vast majority of airplane crashes happen -- and exactly why Haller’s pilots are fighting the development.

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When asked about a worst-case scenario, Tierney said, “a plane could crash into there … they’re going to be in ground zero.”

A development of this kind would never fly if Haller were a public airport, because the state and the FAA require something called “runway protection zones,” and would include a big chunk of the proposed community shown here.

Haller Airpark Proposed Land Use

Those zones are in place to keep the cone-shaped area clear of development and people out of harm’s way, but because Haller is private, local government is in charge of creating those zoning regulations ... and Clay County didn’t create them.

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County Commissioner Jim Renniger wasn’t in office when the rules were supposed to be made, but the problem has fallen on his plate now that he’s in office.

“You and I wouldn’t be talking here today if we’d had those land development codes in place, but they weren’t,” Renniger said.

So what could have been preventive has instead created a battle over property rights and what can safely go where. Adam Williams, with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said this creates a potentially dangerous loophole.

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Action News Jax’s Turner: ”The only distinction between these airports that would be required to have these protections off the end of the runway and this airport is that it’s private, but does the risk change at all?”

Williams: “No, it really is the same. That’s why it is a best practice to treat every airport the same when it comes to compatible land use planning.”

Depending on the day, the airport says 20 to 40 airplanes take off and land on Haller’s runway, and sometimes more. Sometimes they don’t land at all.

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In the last 30 years, there have been 11 crashes out of Haller, with six of them in the runway environment.

Haller Airport accident sites over the past 30 years

That’s why the airport wants the county to create a runway protection zone and make sure it stays clear, even if the oversight hasn’t been.

Haller isn’t the only airport in Clay County. Reynolds is another private airport, used by a CIA contractor, that runs missions at all hours of the day and night in everything from military jet craft to helicopters. Half a mile from the end of that runway, Green Cove Springs has approved a four-story apartment complex. An attorney is fighting that development.

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