Having recently flown out of Northwest Arkansas National Airport, we can confirm it's out there a little way. The running joke for city folks coming in to meet with business executives at Tyson or Walmart is the first thing they'll see when landing at XNA is cow pasture.
Those passengers are, of course, used to flying elsewhere into long-established airports surrounded by warehouses, office buildings and even houses. Think about it, though: In the 1990s when Northwest Arkansas communities banded together to build a new airport, where else would anyone want it but in the boonies? It wouldn't be smart to build a sometimes noisy airport already surrounded by other developments.
Consider Denver. Nobody there needs to complain about the noise, because the airport is dang near 30 minutes outside the city. Of course, that brings in different complaints.
Here's the funny thing. Northwest Arkansas is growing like a weed. And while XNA was out in the middle of nowhere when it first opened in 1998, there's not as much nowhere as there once was. And a decade from now, there'll be even less nowhere in NWA.
Airport officials realize development is closing in around them. And that's caused some worry.
"Northwest Arkansas National Airport officials want to get more aggressive about discouraging the ever-encroaching development around the airport, directors said Wednesday," this paper reported. "Eight properties within about a mile of the airport have sold in the past year, and several are going through the rezoning and residential development process. Other properties are in the process of being sold or rezoned, all at development prices for single- or multi-family housing."
The four cities that make up Northwest Arkansas' urban corridor are filling up fast. Lots of folks want a piece of NWA. That makes land inside those cities more expensive. So naturally, developers look further outside those areas to build more homes.
Pull up a map of XNA, and what do you see around it? Bentonville and Centerton to the north, Cave Springs to the east and Highfill to the southwest. All of those places are growing and developers are trying to snatch up land closer to the airport.
Normally, development and growth are wonderful things to hear about. When XNA sees growth in passengers and demand for flights, it expands services to meet those demands and adds new routes, like it recently did with New Orleans.
But here's the thing about regional growth: You gotta do it smartly; otherwise people are going to be unhappy down the line. Having cow pasture around XNA is preferable. Cows may not like airplane noise, but so far no bovines have moseyed into court and filed a lawsuit over it.
That's one of the problems the airport is facing. Future lawsuits. Because while you can warn developers not to build a house right next to an airport and warn the subsequent customers not to buy the house right next to an airport, there's really no way to stop them from doing it.
Or as Tom Lundstrum on the airport board put it, "I guess I don't understand to what extent we're supposed to protect idiots from buying land right at the end of a runway and complaining about noise."
That's some cowboy poetry if we've ever heard it. But Mr. Lundstrum's common sense might not be heeded. Future residents may buy houses next to the airport, quickly grow annoyed with the noise and lawyer up. This is the land of the lawsuit after all. For folks who think that's paranoid, here's a bit of a history lesson. The airport has already seen a noise lawsuit.
It was over airplane noise disturbing a laying hen operation about three miles from the airport. That litigation took two years and $347,000 to defend. Now imagine an entire neighborhood gets built by the airport, and several residents file their own noise lawsuits. Good way to financially ruin an airport that brings some pretty great travel options to NWA.
And speaking of great travel options, if the airport keeps growing like the region around it (and there's no reason it shouldn't), the board might want to put in a second runway. That's pretty easy to do if you're surrounded by cow pasture. You just waltz up to Old Macdonald and cut him a nice juicy check.
If there's a bunch of houses, though? Forget the second runway. The airport CEO, Aaron Burkes put it this way, "There is activity all around us, and the time is kind of getting limited. It's something we won't need for probably 20 years, maybe 25, but it's the kind of thing, even if we don't need it until then, if we don't act now or in the very near future, we won't have the option of doing a second runway."
Who knows? A second runway might finally be what attracts Southwest Airlines to XNA, something Northwest Arkansas residents have wanted for a long time. But if there are houses in the way? Forget about it!
You can see the issues this encroaching development is causing for the airport. So what's to be done about it? Well, XNA is going to have to hit the pavement and really communicate this issue to planning officials in the cities mentioned above, as well as Benton and Washington counties. Pretty much the only thing that'll stop houses from springing up around the airport is zoning or the airport buying up all the land itself. The latter seems highly unlikely.
For Gentle Readers who might point out the airport has been there since '98, and homeowners that come after should just have to deal with the noise consequences, unfortunately, that's not how the rules work.
From the news article: "Ryk Dunkelberg, with Meade & Hunt, said it's a complicated issue but the general legal premise is airports are liable for the noise they make even if the landowner should have known."
Common sense is a rare thing these days, but lawsuits sure ain't. It doesn't really seem fair that someone could build a house next to an airport 23 years after the fact and then file litigation over an issue they should have been prepared for, but that's, unfortunately, the way this biscuit flakes.
Here's hoping surrounding governing bodies will find a compromise that doesn't harm the airport. It's a vital economic tool for the region, and given time, it'll grow to be even more beneficial.