By Kristen M. Daum
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Wellington aviators are questioning the political motives of a village council member who has a personal stake in the renewed effort to regulate the village’s two private landing strips.
Village officials first considered a civil aviation ordinance almost two years ago when the Wellington Aero Club was about to pave its grass runway. The ordinance was defeated, and the fears some residents had of increased noise and larger jets never came to fruition.
Nonetheless, Wellington’s staff has been developing a revised proposal since October, when the village council — with specific support from Councilman Matt Willhite — directed them to revisit the issue after more than a year of inaction.
A month after that workshop, Palm Beach County property records show Willhite and his wife bought a single-family home on an acre of land in the Aero Club less than 1,000 feet from the community’s runway.
Willhite did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
Leaders of the Aero Club community said they are baffled the village is pursuing the proposed ordinance again, because both they and village officials said there have been neither complaints nor issues with the residents’ aircraft or flying habits. The Aero Club was established more than 30 years ago.
“This is initiated by one councilman because he’s moving in and doesn’t like airplane noise,” said Ken Kopp, an Aero Club resident and the community’s flying expert, who works as a helicopter test pilot.
The newest version of the ordinance will receive its first vetting Wednesday in front of the Public Safety Committee. At least two other village committees are expected to take it up before it would go to the Wellington council.
The Aero Club property owner’s association has retained an attorney, and “we’re preparing and doing what we need to do to protect our rights and protect our property values,” president John Herring said.
The only airports in Wellington are Wellington Aero Club and a family-owned landing strip, known as the Loxahatchee airport. Both sites are private. Owning or operating an airplane isn’t required to purchase one of Aero Club’s 250 homesites.
Herring said most of what the village proposes is already governed by the Federal Aviation Administration or the Aero Club’s own covenants, such as restricting aircraft greater than 12,500 pounds.
“It’s just so out of whack,” Herring said. “This is a waste of taxpayer’s money and a waste of staff time.”
Village memos indicate Wellington paid a consultant $68,000 to help craft the revised proposal. Mike O’Dell, project director for Wellington’s planning department, said the staff was following the council’s instruction.
However, the ordinance could still be on shaky legal ground.
“The FAA has sole regulatory authority over aircraft operations. You can’t circumvent or add to them,” Kopp said. “From the village point of view, they seem to think they can tell us how we are going to fly.”
The draft ordinance also bans flight training, restricts the hours of operation to “limit noise” overnight and prohibits any commercial activities unless approved by the village, which could include private charters hired by residents.
Restricting flight training and hours, in particular, could make it difficult for Aero Club residents to stay certified as licensed pilots. For instance, the FAA requires pilots to perform at least three takeoffs and landings at night every three months, said Steve Daiagi, past president of the Aero Club Property Owners Association.
“How am I supposed to take off at night and do my reoccurring training mandated by the FAA if this goes through?” Daiagi said.
Herring said the restrictions could also affect the Aero Club’s volunteer events, such as safety seminars, emergency training for pilots’ family members and providing rides for Girl Scouts or military veterans, as the community did Saturday.
“There’s no measurable gain in this at all. There’s only a downside,” Herring said.
In late October, the village council held a workshop to discuss whether to move forward with the civil aviation ordinance that had laid dormant for more than a year. During that meeting, Willhite advocated developing the ordinance, saying the discussion “wasn’t new” and arguing that it was a “village-wide issue.”
According to FAA records, 80 single-engine aircraft, 16 multi-engine aircraft and three helicopters are based out of Aero Club. Only one single-engine airplane is based at the Loxahatchee airport.
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