Paulding County officials' efforts to make their airfield into the second commercial airport in Atlanta have taken a step forward, with the completion of a draft environmental assessment for the project and plans for a public hearing.
The draft environmental assessment marks a milestone in a process that has taken nearly two years so far -- yet the project still faces legal challenges.
In the document, a summary of potential environmental consequences did not show any significant environmental impacts that could block the commercialization — though it is a draft that could change with issues raised in public comments.
"We're glad to be done" with the draft, said Paulding airport director Blake Swafford. Now, "the intent here is to get as much public involvement and as much public comment as we can possibly get."
Paulding officials announced in 2013 their plans to commercialize their airport, but that was followed by vociferous opposition from Delta Air Lines, the city of Atlanta and some residents in Paulding, who filed lawsuits challenging the commercialization.
One of those legal challenges led to a settlement in December 2013 that called for an environmental assessment before Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport could be commercialized -- imposing a significant delay in the county's plans.
The lengthy documents released Tuesday examine potential impacts of commercializing the airport on noise, traffic and the environment, including wetlands and streams -- as well as potential economic benefits.
Forested land and a wildlife management area surround three sides of the Paulding airport, which has recently had issues with coyotes, deer and turkeys on the airfield that have delayed takeoffs. Swafford said the airport recently brought in a hunter to take down the animals.
The environmental assessment examines proposed service by Allegiant Air to offer service from small airports like Paulding County where there is little or no scheduled air service. The commercialization of Paulding's airport would serve "the existing and future needs of the flying public in Northwest Georgia," according to the document.
An attorney representing residents who oppose the airport commercialization had asked the Federal Aviation Administration to fully review a complaint filed by the city of Atlanta in August against the Paulding County Airport Authority and address questions about the airport's authority to file the application to commercialize the airport, before moving forward with the draft environmental assessment.
However, the request was ignored and the draft released.
While Paulding airport officials, Paulding county chairman David Austin and other county officials have pushed for the airport commercialization, three of the five county commissioners are opposed to it. Two lawsuits challenging the airport commercialization process also remain pending.
Peter Steenland, an attorney representing residents in opposition to the airport commercialization, said the FAA "should not be wasting taxpayer dollars" on the controversial project, saying the environmental review should be halted until larger issues are resolved.
The process is not yet complete, however.
The public can comment on the draft environmental assessment through Dec. 11, online at the Paulding airport or county websites or in person at the Paulding airport or library.
A public hearing on the airport draft environmental assessment is scheduled for Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. at the Paulding airport.
And resident Sue Wilkins, a plaintiff in lawsuits aimed at blocking the airport commercialization, said opponents can also legally challenge the environmental assessment findings.
"Many fine-toothed combs will be going through it," Wilkins said. "It's time to play ball again."