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June 17, 2018

Aviation vs. avian

Jerry Jackson | 8/20/2012
West Orange Airport
The airport plan calls for lengthening the runway at an old crop duster field in West Orange County.

A proposed airport for light planes and corporate jets in west Orange County has sparked a debate over whether planes and birds can safely share airspace in one of the state’s avian hot spots.

Members of the West Orange Airport Authority say the general aviation facility they envision would not threaten flocks at nearby Lake Apopka, the state’s fourth-largest lake and a major bird feeding and breeding site. Opponents say a commercial airstrip just north of the lake near Zellwood would jeopardize the state’s multimillion-dollar lake restoration effort and pose unnecessary risks for pilots. Thousands of acres of former vegetable fields on the lake’s north shore are being returned to marsh, attracting even more birds.

would be a disaster for the lake restoration project,” says Jim Thomas, an environmental biologist and president of the non-profit Friends of Lake Apopka. City officials in Winter Garden and smaller communities such as Oakland and Montverde south of the lake also oppose the plan.

Guy S. Haggard
Guy S. Haggard

“The airport But airport backers are adamant that a modern, small-scale version of Orlando Executive Airport would be safe and bring jobs and aviation-related business to the region. Orlando attorney Guy S. Haggard, chairman of the airport authority, says the site has had a small airfield for many years. The proposal calls for lengthening a runway at the old crop duster field to allow business jets to take off and land. But the site would continue to mainly serve small propeller planes. “We’re not talking about a jetport,” says Haggard, an instrument-rated private pilot and head of the GrayRobinson law firm aviation group.

The plan still needs local, state and federal permits, and a controversial land swap with the St. Johns River Water Management District must be completed.

Cranes in Lake Apopka

Bird Count

Number of birds observed during an official single-day survey at Lake Apopka last September:

  • 5,132 — total birds
  • 83 — bird species
  • 2,298 — red-winged blackbirds
  • 91 — ospreys
  • 14 — wading bird species
  • 8 — warbler species
  • 6 — duck species

Source: St. Johns River Water Management District, September 2011 survey

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