Airport Expansion Could Rely on Eminent Domain

By Kati Bexley

Eleven Araquay Park residents fighting the expansion of the airport into their neighborhood have been given new offers on their homes by the St. Augustine-St. Johns County Airport Authority.

Authority board members have been negotiating with the property owners east of Casa Cola in Araquay Park who have refused to sell their property to the airport.

Last week, those residents received letters from the authority offering to buy their houses for 40 percent above the appraisal.

Monday, the authority passed a resolution 4-1 allowing it to use eminent domain to take the properties at that pricing structure.

Airport attorney Mark Arnold said the 11 property owners opposing the airport were sent letters explaining eminent domain.

"The letter outlines the statute and gives them a copy of the statute," Arnold told the board.

Board member Wayne George asked the resolution to be passed with the condition that three weeks prior to the eight-week deadline the property owners are given a letter of notification.

"In essence notifying them of what the resolution said," George said.

Only board member Joseph Ciriello voted against the resolution.

"It's a law and that's what you go by and you're a lawyer, but it's a lousy law," Ciriello told Arnold. "I think a person's life and homes are worth more than 40 percent to them."

Ciriello had asked Arnold at a board meeting in March how the airport could prove to a judge that new hangars are for a public purpose. Arnold said the profits the airport would make from the expansion would help get it off the tax roll. That would be enough justification to allow the authority to take the land, he said.

Mary McElroy, 76, is one of the 11 property owners resisting the board. She said even with the added 40 percent the board's appraisal is too low.

"They're trying to take me for a ride, in my opinion," McElroy said Tuesday.

She said her family lived in the area before the airport was built. Her home has an irreplaceable view on the marsh, McElroy said.

"There is no place in St. Johns County that I can buy a house where I can look across the Intracoastal Waterway and see homes on Vilano Beach," she said.

McElroy's daughter-in-law, Carolyn McElroy, lives two doors down from her. Carolyn said her home was built in 1951. She said the board had an archaeologist look at the homes at least 50 years old in Araquay Park.

"This is mandated by the state, from my understanding," Mary said. "Some of these homes were built in the 20s and they've already been knocked down, so there must not be too much history can do to stop it."

Carolyn's son lives across the street from her and the board is going after his property as well, she said. The McElroy family has a lawyer and plans to sue, they said.

At the authority meeting July 14, it was shown that airport activity is up 16,274 in operations, or takeoffs and landings, over the same time last year. That brings the total number of operations to 71,000, making the airport on track to reach the anticipated 140,000 operations for the year.

Carolyn said Tuesday she might not be able to save her house but she's going to keep fighting. "We'll go down swinging, as they say," she said.

Ed Wuellner, Airport Authority executive director, did not want to comment Tuesday on the passing of the resolution.

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