From the runway, it's hard to envision Stafford Regional Airport as an economic engine; it's barely an airport. It looks more like a 550-acre football field, and on a recent afternoon, nothing moved there except a stray pit bull that had wandered onto the tarmac.
When it opened a year ago, Stafford Regional was touted as a key to relieving Dulles International and Reagan National airports of general aviation traffic -- recreational planes and small, corporate aircraft. Today, it is little more than a runway, a small parking lot, a triple-wide office trailer and a few trucks that chug fuel out to the planes.
Between problems with acidic soil, a freeze on state funds and a three-year delay in the construction of a nearby exit on Interstate 95, the airport is behind schedule. Although 10,000 landings and takeoffs were expected in the airport's first year, there are only a few dozen each week -- visiting planes that come and go because there are no hangars or tie-downs yet for permanent parking.
But backers of the airport, including longtime members of the airport authority that oversees it, see a future with hangar space for more than 100 aircraft, a terminal building, rental car services and a huge boost in prestige and tax revenue when businesses spring up on nearby commercial lots.
With the delay has come political discord. Local officials are divided over everything from the company that has been selected to run the airport to the way the Stafford Regional Airport Authority oversees it. In many ways, the hubbub surrounding the airport reflects the broader community debate about how much growth is good and who should participate in the decision-making process around the issue.
"The airport has been run like a pilots' club," said Supervisor Pete Fields (D-George Washington). "It's the old, insular way versus a broader way."
The airport, in the planning stages for more than a decade, is caught between two schools of thought on growth in a county where swaths of forest are now interrupted by gaping holes and bulldozers.
One school remembers times of economic struggle, welcomes the arrival of new residents and businesses and sees development in terms of property rights. The four charter members of the airport authority envision an expanded airport as key to attracting business and enlarging the commercial tax base that helps pay for services for new residents.
The other school is concerned about preserving the environment and a gentler way of life. The three newest Stafford members of the airport authority, appointed this year by a Board of Supervisors that favors slow growth, want to take a more cautious approach on such proposals as eventually lengthening the runway to accommodate more traffic and larger planes.
The difference in outlook has broken out in a dispute over the contract signed by Texas-based Trajen Flight Support Inc. to operate the airport.
The supervisors and their appointees say the contract, finalized in August without a vote of the full authority, is illegal, and the board has demanded the resignation of authority member Roger Murphy, who negotiated and inked the deal unilaterally. Murphy has refused to step down, and supervisors have discussed seeking a federal investigation.
Fields describes the lease with Trajen -- which pays the authority 60 cents per square foot a year for airport property that it can develop for fuel, maintenance and food service -- as "the Wawa of the sky," a reference to the ubiquitous Wawa convenience stores.
"They want the maximum" number of flights while giving the authority "minimum revenue, which is the opposite of what we want," said Fields. He added that, for the board, "It's a question of quality rather than quantity."
Murphy's phone number is unlisted, and the lawyer he has hired to represent him in the dispute, Bill Sokol, did not return several phone calls.
Murphy's defenders note that he and the other three senior members of the authority have been meeting every month for more than a decade, without pay, to build political momentum for the airport project.
"These guys have been working at this for so long, and a lot of it was done behind closed doors, little by little. And this is the thanks they get," said Cindi Martin, the airport's director.
So far, the airport has money to build hangar space for 10 aircraft, Martin said, and 37 private pilots with single- and twin-engine planes are on a waiting list. She also said she fields about five calls a week from people, from mechanics to caterers, interested in setting up businesses at the airport, but no formal negotiations are under way.
The county predicts that the airport eventually will bring millions of dollars in revenue from new businesses that will serve the airport -- motels, gas stations -- or those that choose to locate in Stafford for easy airport access. So far, however, nothing specific is on the table.
Bob Carter, head of economic development for Stafford County, said he is confident that business interest will increase with the completion of the I-95 interchange, once scheduled for last year and now expected in 2004.
One nearby model is the Leesburg Executive Airport in Loudoun County, where small-plane pilots have watched their recreational airport grow from a small strip in 1964 to a facility with a mile-long runway, flight schools, corporate jets and 100,000 takeoffs and landings each year. Director Doug McNeeley said the Leesburg airport brings about $23 million annually to the region.
Like Leesburg a decade ago, the Stafford airport is struggling with early growing pains. The supervisors plan to meet next week with officials from Fredericksburg and Prince William County, both of which contribute money to the airport and appoint members to the authority, to discuss blunting Murphy's influence, said Supervisor Jack Cavalier (I-Griffis-Widewater).
Cavalier said the board could propose a charter revision. Under the current charter, he said, removing a member would be difficult and likely involve litigation.
Among the board's objections to the lease contract is a clause that allows Trajen to back out of the 20-year contract after a year, if the firm isn't satisfied with how much money it is making. The contract doesn't allow the community to bail out on Trajen, however.
Authority Chairman Bill Ausley, a former Marine jet pilot, defended the lease, saying Trajen is understandably cautious about investing in a new market. He said he doesn't understand why the lease is so controversial and contends that the heart of the dispute is really how Stafford should grow.
"I grew up with no people around, so I understand both sides," Ausley said. "There will be dramatic growth in Stafford County because of the airport, and for the people who want this, they'll be happy. For the people who don't, they won't."
Jack Selby, above, of Trajen Flight Support Inc., which operates the airport, checks on a recent day's weather conditions, as a private jet, left, sits on the tarmac. Despite delays, the airport's backers anticipate its boosting the area's prestige and tax revenue when businesses spring up on nearby commercial lots.
Ed Wallis, Stafford Regional Airport's sole employee, walks near equipment being used to build a hanger that eventually will be used for plane storage.