Colonia residents caught up in airport expansion

BROWNSVILLE — Residents of the Sunny Skies colonia are angry and confused.

They want to know why the City of Brownsville needs to take their property in order to expand the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport. They want to know where they will go.

Gumercindo Villarreal, owner of Villarreal Grocery, and the rest of the residents of the Sunny Skies colonia received a letter from Garza & Associates LLC saying it has been contracted by Texas Land Professionals, Inc., to appraise various properties around the airport for a project known as the “Brownsville Airport Expansion Project.”

“I really wouldn’t like to sell (my property), honestly,” Villarreal said. “I understand that if it’s for the good of the airport and the city just wants to give us a something reasonable.”

Villarreal’s niece, Noelia Diaz, who is also a Sunny Skies resident, received the same letter and said she and the rest of the neighborhood have heard rumors for years that the city has been wanting to buy them out to expand the airport.

“When you receive a letter like that you kind of panic,” Diaz said. “A lot of stuff runs through your mind (and) mixed emotions, but more than anything it’s panic. Not knowing anything about what’s going on and especially not finding anyone to speak to about what’s happening.”

Diaz said she tried to call Cameron County Commissioner Sofia Benavides’ office but ended up speaking to her assistant, Patty Matamoros. Matamoros informed Diaz that this was the first time they heard about the airport expansion and the buying out of the colonia.

Matamoros then referred Diaz to City Manager Charlie Cabler, but Diaz said she was not able to speak with him, either.

Diaz emailed Cabler, stating her concerns, and he replied back to her, saying he forwarded her information to Airport Director Bryant Walker.

“Mr. Walker called me back, and he was very nice,” Diaz said. “He did address a lot of my concerns and gave me a lot more information than what we had before.”

Walker informed Diaz the project had started about 20 years ago and also mentioned the city has purchased several properties throughout the years. Diaz said Walker informed her that the city plans on buying out the colonia during the next two years.

Walker said the terminal and runway expansion project has been going on for the past 20 years, and that the city and the Federal Aviation Administration have been buying land for the expansion for years.

“(The city) never had, I guess, the ability to go after all the land. At this point, the FAA is now supporting the project, because this is an enhancement to aircraft safety,” Walker said.

Currently, the runway at the airport is about 7,400 feet long. With the expansion, the runway will be about 10,000 feet long.

“When the aircraft lands, it has to really apply brakes briskly and apply thrust reversers to slow down in the length that it has. So if we extend the runway from 7,400 feet to 10,000 feet, it’s going to increase the margin of safety for all the aircrafts that land here,” Walker said.

He said the homeowners from the colonia knew that, eventually, the city was going to buy them out for airport expansion.

“So even though the construction of the runway is probably somewhere about five years off, homeowners could possibly stay there for several more years without issue,” Walker said.

If a homeowner doesn’t want to sell his or her property, Walker said the city would sit down with the homeowner and negotiate something on which they can both agree to obtain the property.

“We still need to build up the (Rio Grande) Valley, we need to build up Brownsville and we need to improve the infrastructure that’s here,” Walker said.

The airport will host a public meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Bob Clark Social Service Center, located at South Brownie Avenue and California Road, to answer questions Sunny Skies residents or their representatives might have.