Okeechobee County cleared to develop airport

PORT ST. LUCIE – The South Florida Water Management District governing board voted Feb. 1 to release the conservation easement on the Okeechobee County airport in exchange for a payment to the Bluefield Wetlands Mitigation Bank. The action came at their Saturday meeting in Port St. Lucie.

The conservation easement included 54.96 acres adjacent to the runway.

SFMWD staff explained that under current guidelines, a conservation easement would not have been granted in that area due to the proximity to the runway, creating a danger for both the birds that might be attracted to a wetland area and to the planes that might collide with birds.

Governing board member Ben Butler noted the Federal Aviation Authority directed SFWMD to find a way to remove the easement because of the safety concerns.

“We’re not wanting to expand the size of the airport,” explained Okeechobee County Commissioner Brad Goodbread. He said the FAA will not approve any improvements at the airport until the conservation easement problem is resolved.

“We can’t even build another set of hangers,” he said, noting there is a waiting list for hangers.

“We’re not wanting to increase the size of it. We want to develop the airport,” he explained.

Adam Hied, director of the Okeechobee airport, has been working since last year to unravel the decades-old problem that left the airport with a conservation easement.

At their Nov. 7, 2019 meeting, the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners voted to spend $487,500 from the capital improvements fund to purchase 3.25 credits (at a cost of $150,000 per credit) from the Bluefield Ranch Mitigation Bank.

At that meeting, airport manager Mr. Hied explained that in 1996 a conservation easement was placed on the airport. Apparently this was done without the knowledge or permission of the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2008, when Okeechobee County updated the airport master plan, that conservation easement was shown on it. The FAA rejected the airport plan. As a consequence, plans to improve the airport have been stalled for more than a decade.

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