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KOBE — The Kobe Municipal Government applied Tuesday to the Transport Ministry for approval of its plan to reclaim land off the port of Kobe to build a new airport.

It is the final legal procedure necessary before the controversial project can begin. The city hopes to start reclamation work as early as this summer and open the airport by late 2005.

In November, the Kobe Municipal Assembly turned down a proposal to hold a plebiscite on the project, despite the collection by civic and political groups of more than 300,000 signatures of those who oppose the airport.

The planned airport, featuring a 2,750-meter runway, will be set on a 272-hectare man-made island to be built off Kobe port. Most of the cost would be covered by city bond issues.

The proposed airport has been a source of controversy for nearly 30 years. Although the city assembly passed a resolution in 1972 not to build an airport, it reversed the resolution in 1990, citing economic pressures.

However, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which heavily damaged the port city, increased doubts over the project. Opponents said the money to cover its construction should be spent on social welfare projects instead.

Critics have also argued that a new airport would be superfluous, because there are already two major airports nearby — Kansai International Airport and the Osaka airport in Itami, which handles domestic flights.

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