Swerving to avoid a crash

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On one side, a pack of opportunistic developers anxious to win a piece of the $965 million budgeted for expansion of the Orlando Regional Airport; on the other, a handful of environmental groups equally zealous about the fate of at least 68 species of birds that inhabit the square mile of land slated for the expansion.;;In the middle is the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, the governmental body charged with balancing not only these divergent viewpoints, but the direction and intent of conflicting state and federal regulations.;;On Tuesday, Sept. 30, airport officials met with environmentalists concerned that a recent advisory by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) might prompt officials to make changes in airport plans that would be hazardous to the birds' health.;;"We expressed our concerns about the environmental impacts of the airport build-out,"says Charles Lee, executive vice president of the Florida Audubon Society. "We would be very concerned with any change in direction.";;The airport expansion plans are based on a permit issued about two years ago by the South Florida Water Management District. Under the permit, the airport is expected to provide replacement wetlands, either through mitigation, paying for land at another site or wetlands banking, accomplished by depositing funds in an account to be used in buying other property.;;On the other hand, the expansion plan must try to balance the guidelines in a recent FAA circular which targets for extinction birds and other animals it describes as "hazardous wildlife"and trees and other habitat termed "wildlife attractants." Neither wildlife nor habitat is acceptable within two miles of airport areas where planes move, load, unload or park, or within five miles of land in the path of departing or arriving flights. "We're trying to balance water management criteria and safety concerns,"says Cindy Sellers, manager of environmental service for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "It's a tough spot.";;So, for example, the plan would satisfy the FAA guidelines according to plans to steepen banks of ponds otherwise favored for landing by birds angling for a drink. But this would run afoul of the water-district permit, as well as environmentalists such as the Florida Audubon Society.;;Should airport officials choose to follow the FAA advisory, Audubon expects them to provide additional money for wetlands, preferably on the Disney Wilderness Reserve in Osceola County, an 8,500 acre tract owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy. ;;"If the somewhat radical approaches advocated by the FAA are followed, then mitigation responsibilities would increase,"says Lee. "It's sort of an unfunded mandate.";;In addition, Lee warns the airport could wind up with more seagulls and waterfowl of the type most often involved in crashes with aircraft, while eliminating wading birds that have chosen to live among the cypress and hardwood trees, and ponds with banks sloped with them in mind.;;While concerned that airport board members' heads might be turned by those embracing the new FAA approach, Audubon gives Orlando officials much higher marks than their counterparts in Sanford. Currently Audubon has three separate legal actions pending against the Orlando Sanford Airport as the result of removal of an eagle's nest in the path of a runway expansion.;;"Nowhere in the country, except Sanford, are we cutting down eagle's nests,"says Lee. "It just so happens that seagulls and waterfowl are actually scared by eagles." In fact, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, officials have actually begun releasing hawks -- like eagles, a bird of prey -- to scare off seagulls and other waterfowl connected with most bird-plane crack-ups.;;When Sanford elected to chop down the tree holding the nest, as well as surrounding habitat, Audubon filed complaints with and won support from state wildlife officials, as well as the Florida Department of Consumer Affairs, which ordered Sanford to "cease and desist" from further work on the expansion. Also, Audubon has notified the airport of plans to file a lawsuit accusing an FAA official and Sanford airport official of conspiring to use the FAA directive to push through the eagle's nest removal. "Like most exercises in demagoguery, there's a kernel of truth that gets blown out of proportion," Lee says.;;Conversely, Audubon is heartened by Orlando's willingness to consider alternatives of lesser impact. "Right now, the Orlando Regional Airport seems to really have their act together," Lee says.;; While there have been no formal requests for changes in Orlando, Sellers says, "I can't tell you what the board will do."
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