If the Federal Aviation Administration approves funding for Yeager Airport’s planned $168 million extension into neighboring Coonskin Park, some major changes are in store for the 1,000-acre county-operated outdoor recreation facility.
A portion of Yeager’s proposed extension into Coonskin Park would be used to create a runway that’s at least 7,000 feet long, to help retain and add to current commercial air service. Most of the extension would be used to make possible 1,000-foot safety areas at each end of Yeager’s runway to fully comply with FAA standards.
The huge earthen structure needed to accommodate the project would extend from the east end of the hilltop airport’s runway 2,300 feet into park property, following the path of the approach light towers that have been a part of Coonskin’s landscape for decades.
While the park’s swimming pool, golf course, lodge, soccer stadium, administration building, tennis courts, skate park, driving range and pond would be untouched by the development, the fill structure would bury a number of picnic sites and shelters and an assortment of trails. It would also cover a section of Coonskin Drive within the park.
If the project moves forward, Yeager would pay $15.5 million into a mitigation fund for the park, make available 100 acres of off-park land, and help with certain post-construction tasks.
“We’re aware that we’re going to have to mitigate for the work that we plan to do, and we’re willing to do that and more,” Airport Director Terry Sayre said. “We consider the park a great venue for the county, and we want it to be successful.”
Sayre said the airport would pay to relocate trails and fund the replacement of the picnic sites and shelters, and build additional sites and shelters, if desired by the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission.
If park officials seek additional land for hiking and biking trails, a county-owned 100-acre tract of forest a few miles across Elk River from the park could be made available, according to Sayre.
A borrow area in an undeveloped area of the park from which the 17 million cubic yards of earth needed for the project would be taken would become a 100-acre tract of level land, once construction is complete, Sayre said.
The area is large enough to accommodate 10 soccer fields and six baseball/softball fields and parking areas serving both, according to airport officials, or could serve as the site of an indoor, all-season recreational facility.
“It will be up to the park board to decide what to do with that land, and make sure it complements the facilities at the Shawnee Sports Complex and other county parks,” Sayre said.
The possibility of extending Yeager’s runway into the park has been discussed since the 1960s, according to Sayre. A 2003 study evaluating the possibility of using park land to meet FAA safety overrun standards and bring optimum runway length to the Charleston airport was impractical, mainly because it would have blocked what was then the park’s sole access road.
“A very expensive tunnel would have been needed reach the park, so it was decided instead to build the EMAS bed at the end of Runway 5 [the end of the runway nearest Charleston] and build a 500-foot safety area on the Runway 23 end,” Sayre said.
But the 2015 opening of a new bridge across the Elk River and a new access road into the park prompted officials to reconsider an extension into Coonskin.
A runway safety area study completed last month “shows that an extension into the park is the most feasible way to get us into compliance with FAA standards,” Sayre said.
The new EMAS bed being installed now to replace the one lost to the March 2015 safety overrun area collapse will serve its purpose by protecting aircraft from overshooting the Charleston end of the runway until the planned extension into Coonskin Park is complete, according to Sayre.
That EMAS bed, expected to be complete in August, has an effective useful life span of about 10 years, Sayre said, and may prove difficult to replace, since the sole U.S. manufacturer of EMAS blocks recently announced plans to cease operating. The EMAS blocks being installed at Yeager are the last to be produced by the firm.
Uncertainty over the future supply of EMAS played a role in Yeager’s Runway Safety Area Study recommending the addition of standard 1,000-foot safety zones at each end of the runway.
Yeager Airport owns virtually all of the land in Coonskin Park on which the the extension would be built. A wide swath of airport-owned land extends from the east end of Yeager’s runway and follows the path of FAA approach light towers across the park, over Coonskin Drive to a ridgetop that was cleared and leveled years ago to remove a flight obstruction.
If the FAA decides to take the project to the next step and authorize an environmental study, public meetings, information sessions and a public comment period can be expected.