SEBRING — Six years ago, Ralph Braha wanted a mud bogging park at Swamp Hammock. Although Highlands County Commissioners eventually allowed four events in 2012, Braha gave up on the idea after continued protests from neighbors.
On Tuesday, Braha’s latest idea — a luxurious fly-in community named Botanical Resorts — was also turned down by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Through marketing director Bryan Pease and attorney Brandon Craig, Braha was requesting to subdivide 430 acres of a 1,202-acre parcel for a 4,800-foot-long runway and 25 to 30 10-acre home parcels for a gated subdivision.
“They can come in and land,” Craig said, “and have a hangar attached to their homes. It would be a private community, not very active. It would only have homeowners — essentially vacation homes.”
Two tarmacs could be used to tie down planes instead, Pease said.
The airstrip is permitted by Highlands County’s land development regulations, Zoning Supervisor Linda Conrad said.
“I just think that anything going over my head, I need more information,” board member Bette Tiernan asked. “How much air traffic is going over my head?”
The airstrip would have been located a mile south of the Highlands-Hardee county lines, near the intersection of West Josephine Road and Marguerite Road.
“Is this going to increase neighboring property values?” member Joan Mack asked. “It’s mostly farmland. Now you’re going to have planes coming in and going to have noise again?”
“I spoke to neighbors around the property, and they did not have any objections to this project,” Pease said.
“Can you land a small jet?” Pease was asked.
“Yes,” he said.
Will planes be practicing takeoffs and landings, Pease was asked.
“There are no plans for training facility,” Pease said. South Florida Water Management District has been contacted. “We don’t have to mitigate any wetlands.”
“You haven’t made an application with FAA or Florida Department of Transportation,” member Bob Howard asked.
“We don’t have to, for a totally private airstrip,” Pease answered.
Baxter Troutman owns land and four houses near the site. “I’m very much opposed to this project. Unfortunately, they will fly right over the top of my houses.
“Jets can land on 4,800 feet,” Troutman said. “Trust me. And they’re loud.”
What if Braha decides to build more houses, committee members asked?
If 10-acre lots were to be subdivided into five acres, they would have to plat it. “We don’t have any more plans than what is there.”
“There are no growth plans,” Pease said. “There are no plans to expand it. We are willing to stipulate no more development.”
Would fuel trucks be allowed, Pease was asked. “No, we are not asking for fuel trucks?”
“I don’t have any big objections to this like the mud bog,” neighbor Donald Skipper, who is a former Navy pilot, said. “I’ll live with it.” However, he said later in the meeting, even though he owns his own airstrip, he objected to the project because of the noise.
“It would be a marvelous thing, but we don’t have the emergency services in this community to take care of the mishaps. It’s premature.”
“I talked to the fire department,” Pease said. “We plan on having an EMT on site.”
“How much time do you think it’s going to take before you have an accident?” Tiernan said.
“All that beautiful ag land,” member Dave Travers said. “I don’t think it’s the right place for an airport.”
Member Lew Carter abstained, the other six members voted for a motion to deny the application.
Pease said the former ranch has already been approved for 100 houses, so Braha will proceed with that plan.