The old entrance to Coonskin Park. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

Deep inside Coonskin Park the woods are dense, with hiking trails leading off farther into the trees. Far from the driving range, clubhouse and pool, Jeremy Severn is sitting in his usual spot under Shelter 7.

”My kid learned to ride his bike (here). I’ve got pictures and videos of him,” Severn says. “How lucky am I that this is in my backyard?”

The rain just finished, so there aren’t many people in the park. It’s quiet, just the soft twittering of birds that fades into the background as Severn speaks — until they’re all drowned out by loud rumbling. Again.

It’s the engine of a plane flying overhead, preparing to land at the neighboring airport: a frequent occurrence at Coonskin and a physical reminder of its relationship with Yeager Airport. 

Jeremy Severn carries maps of the Yeager Airport’s expansion under Shelter 7 in Coonskin Park. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

Created on land that was given to the community after the airport was built, Coonskin has never existed without the airport. And this fact seemingly now haunts the park as a proposal to expand the airport threatens the remote picnic shelter Severn now sits at.

To complete their expansion, airport officials would level that part of the park, destroying at least 7.5 miles of hiking trails and 15 shelters, according to Severn. For city officials and airport leadership, the project is a necessary next step to improve Yeager’s safety and further bolster the local economy. 

To them, it’s a burden the park is expected to shoulder. But for Severn and the thousands of people who have signed a petition opposing the project, it represents the loss of Charleston’s  most cherished park.

The plan to expand West Virginia’s largest airport

From a conference room on the second floor of Yeager Airport, a large set of windows overlooks the runway. As a plane takes off, Airport Director Dominique Ranieri gestures to it. 

She’s aware that many expect a rough landing here. 

“As someone who’s flown in and out, you’ve probably heard it on the plane where people are like ‘Oh my God,’ when you’re coming in for a landing,” Ranieri says. But she’s hopeful the plans to expand the airport will solve the issue — or, at the very least, ease people’s minds. 

“It’s just a sense of security we’d like to be able to provide to the passengers,” Ranieri adds.

The Engineered Material Arresting System — an alternative to standard safety areas — at the end of the Yeager Airport’s runway. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

The airport is proposing a plan that would extend the runway by adding 285 feet. It would also shift the runway so the airport can add a 1,000-foot safety area to each end of it, as is required by federal standards. 

Adding the new safety areas would allow the airport to retire the padding currently at the end of the runway — an expensive alternative. It will also allow larger, heavier planes to fly out from Yeager, making it more attractive to other airlines, according to Ranieri. 

To do this, the airport would need to acquire about 82 acres of the 1,000-acre Coonskin Park. It would also need to excavate millions of tons of soil from an additional 250 acres to use as fill to create a structure to support the new features. 

But before the airport can go through with its expansion, it still needs approval from the Federal Aviation Administration — typically a two-year process. The final decision is set to be made by next September. 

A plane landing at Yeager Airport, flying over Coonskin Park. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

A community effort to build awareness

Now, deeper in the woods than before, Severn is standing on one of the popular dirt trails. Hands on his hips, breathing slightly harder, he’s looking out at Coonskin Grotto — a small waterfall in the park and just one of the highly treasured parts of the park that will be lost, if the proposal goes through. 

If it does, there won’t be much left for Severn at Coonskin anymore. He only uses the bike and hiking trails — the parts of Coonskin that will no longer exist. 

The view of Coonskin Park from the end of the airport’s runway. Photo by Sarah Elbeshbishi

Severn’s love for the park is how he found himself helping to lead the effort opposing the airport’s plans, known as “Save Coonskin Park”. He’s built a website and created maps and a video to help inform the community about the plan’s impacts on Coonskin. 

“If they don’t go through with this proposal, Yeager Airport still exists. If they do go through with this proposal Coonskin is gone,” Severn says. “That’s the point.”

While Coonskin’s pool, golf course, driving range, soccer field, skate park and pond won’t be affected, most of the park’s hiking trails and picnic shelters would be eliminated. 

Because Coonskin is protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a federal program that safeguards natural areas for recreational use — the airport would be responsible for replacing the sections of the park affected. But the end result will be far from the dense forests, mountains and waterfalls: this part of the park would be turned into a grassy field. 

For now, the group is focused on raising public awareness and building a strong coalition of community members before the next public comment period about the plan takes place. 

While when the public comment period will open up is not clear, it’s set to take place once the Federal Aviation Administration files a draft of its environmental impact study on the airport’s plan on the park.

But for Severn, and thousands of others, the irreversible change to the park represents a loss for the community.  

“To lose this space for me would be devastating,” he said. “It would basically mean I’m moving if this happens.” 

Sarah Elbeshbishi is Mountain State Spotlight's Environment and Energy Reporter.