Thomasville Regional Airport expansion and the Aucilla River

By Neil Fleckenstein, Land Conservancy Planning Coordinator

Tall Timbers’ conservation easements protect many treasured resources in the Red Hills. The Aucilla River, a winding, spring-fed blackwater river is one of the most important. In addition to protecting miles of river frontage, Tall Timbers’ easements conserve over 44,500 acres of habitat in the Aucilla River basin. The river’s humble beginning near the Thomasville Airport belies the ecological, recreational, and historical importance of this regional resource. Its wildlife diversity, scenery, freshwater springs, and brief stretches of whitewater make it extremely popular with paddlers. Some of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the southeastern Unites States have occurred along the river. For these reasons, the Aucilla is designated as an Outstanding Florida Waterbody by the state of Florida.

The Aucilla River and the Thomasville Regional Airport—two seemingly unrelated proper nouns—share something in common: real estate. The Aucilla River begins approximately six miles northeast of Thomasville, near the airport’s main runway. The City of Thomasville is proposing to extend the length of that runway by 1,000 feet to better accommodate the class of business jets that currently use the airport. Due to the short length of the existing runway, departing aircraft currently are weight restricted on takeoff and often must make an added refueling stop to reach their destination. City officials note that providing adequate runway length is an integral component in meeting the present and future needs for business and recreational travel for the community and the Red Hills Region. 

Tall Timbers is well aware and supportive of the vital role the airport plays in the local and regional economy, our transportation infrastructure, and way of life for the seasonal and year round residents of the Red Hills Region. Tall Timbers planning staff have met with City officials, airport consultants, and other interested parties and provided recommendations for moving forward with this project, while also protecting the headwaters of the Aucilla River. 

In comments provided for the official permit record, Tall Timbers recommended that during the construction period, the City strictly adhere to all National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) construction permit requirements related to erosion, sedimentation, and stormwater management. We asked that the City place particular emphasis and added protection during the height of summer storm season when heavy rain events could wash enormous amounts of sediment into Lost Creek, an important tributary of the Aucilla River. We also requested, in the likely event the City applies for and receives a variance to Georgia’s 25 foot minimum vegetative buffer zone for state waters, that the City use extreme care and all appropriate structural and non-structural management techniques to ensure the Aucilla River and its tributaries are protected from harm.

Tall Timbers also noted that the City’s preferred option for expanding the runway will result in the loss of 5.75 acres of wetlands and more than 26 acres of forestlands that buffer, filter, treat, and cool stormwater that leaves the airport, enters Lost Creek, and eventually discharges into the Aucilla River. We urged the City to go beyond traditional best management practices for treating stormwater from the airport. We recommended evaluating a range of structural and nonstructural practices to most effectively manage stormwater rate and volume and improve stormwater quality before it enters Lost Creek. 

Finally, we noted that the airport runway extension will affect Lost Creek Forest, a publically accessible forest conserved through a collaborative effort involving Thomasville, Thomas County and many Red Hills residents. Tall Timbers recommended that the City develop an “interested parties” list to regularly communicate project progress and other relevant information to the public. This would be a prudent step given the potential for this project to impact Lost Creek/Lost Creek Forest and the Aucilla River, two publicly accessible recreational sites. Providing regular updates on the status of the airport construction project on the City’s website and other social media platforms will also improve communication with the public about an important project that should receive more public attention and scrutiny.

Tall Timbers believes this project can be completed in a manner that achieves the goal of enhancing the performance of the airport for its many customers while simultaneously protecting the regionally important Aucilla River and its tributaries. To do so will require that the City exceed minimum standards of protection and opt to aggressively protect vital Red Hills’ natural, scenic, and recreational public resources. We look forward to working with the City as this project moves forward. 

Should you have any questions about this issue, please contact Neil Fleckenstein at 850-893-4153, ext. 335.

Protection of the Aucilla River and its watershed is a high priority for the TTLC.  Photo by Richard Lenz 

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