'If we can move forward, we will': Despite sequester, officials continue to plan for Destin tower

Matt Algarin

With 149 contract air traffic control towers scheduled to close in the coming months, airport officials are proceeding with plans for an air traffic control tower in Destin despite sequestration.

"A lot of time has been spent determining what the FAA is doing with the contract tower program," said Tracy Stage, deputy airports director for Okaloosa County. "We're proceeding forward with our environmental assessment."

Airport officials, along with representatives from aviation consultants RS&H, were in Destin Thursday for a workshop to update the public and aviation-affiliated businesses on the status of the proposed air traffic control tower at Coleman Kelly Field.

The proposed tower was accepted into the Federal Aviation Administration's contract tower program in 2012. If built, the tower would stand 84-feet tall.

Stage told the group of city employees and military representatives that a tower in Destin would provide air traffic controllers with an unobstructed view of the airport's grounds and air traffic.

The tower itself would be owned by Okaloosa County, but would be staffed with contracted employees from the FAA. There is currently $4.5 million available in funding to construct the tower.

Given the variety of traffic in the sky above Destin, which typically includes planes, helicopters and parasailers, the airspace can be difficult for the Eglin Radar Control Facility to manage.

"Airspace is very, very tight (in Destin)," Stage said. "There is a lot of confusion."

"The need for a control tower is pretty self evident," RS&H's Ken Ibold added, noting that Destin's traffic count is higher than that at Eglin Air Force Base.

As part of the tower project, which dates back to 2007 when an initial siting study was completed, an environmental assessment must be completed. The assessment looks at everything from impacts to air quality, noise, fish and wildlife, floodplains and wetlands to light emissions and socioeconomic impacts.

Approximately 1-acre of wetlands will be impacted, according to information provided at the workshop

As part of the process, the county will have to secure permits from the Northwest Florida Water Management District and the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Residents can view the draft environmental assessment and submit comments to airport officials and RS&H. The draft can be viewed at Northwest Florida Regional Airport, the Destin Library or at Comments can be submitted until April 16.

With sequestration uncertainty still in the air, Stage said county officials will continue to press forward with plans for the tower, but they would keep their ears close to the discussions taking place at the federal level.

"I don't want this to sound like it's not going to happen," he said. "If we can move forward, we will."