Atlanta: Paulding airport would ‘breach’ land deal

The city of Atlanta once considered starting a second commercial airport on land it bought in Paulding County. Now it’s threatening to sue Paulding for trying to start its own.

In the latest obstacle for Paulding’s airport ambitions, Atlanta officials have sent a letter warning the county they might go to court to block plans for airline operations at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

Their argument: Part of the Paulding airport sits on a chunk of land the county bought back from the city several years ago, and the city understood it would be used only for non-commercial aviation. Plans for airline flights are “a material breach of contract,” Candace Byrd, Mayor Kasim Reed’s chief of staff, wrote in the letter.

Paulding Commission chairman David Austin’s response? “It’s just B.S.”

He noted that the Atlanta mayor delivered a speech touting regionalism to the Paulding Chamber of Commerce in 2011, telling the audience Atlanta is not an enemy, but a friend.

Now, Austin says, “The moment we start having success out here, they turn on us like a rabid dog, and say, ‘You’re not entitled to success.’”

The threat of legal action by the city is hardly the only obstacle facing Paulding’s plans. Last year the county airport authority struck an airport terminal lease with a private company and, after months of quiet preparation, announced it hoped to offer limited airline service — a few flights a week, initially, to a leisure destination.

Since then some Paulding residents have mounted legal and bureacratic challenges that have slowed the airport’s preparations. And no airline partner for the project has yet emerged.

The county’s airport plan also riled the city of Atlanta, which owns and operates Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and its biggest tenant, Delta Air Lines. Both oppose any sort of second commercial airport, arguing it could grow to drain resources and customers from Hartsfield-Jackson.

That wasn’t always the case.

In the 1970s the city bought about 10,000 acres of Paulding land as a potential second airport site. Over the years the idea waned, but the city kept that land, as well as another tract in Dawson County in north Georgia.

In 2007 Atlanta sold 163 acres to Paulding as the county developed its new general aviation airport. Then-general manager Ben DeCosta at the time struck a cooperative tone, saying the deal was to help economic development in Paulding.

Now, Byrd’s letter says the property was sold for a project that was “restricted to a ‘Regional General Aviation Airport’” and that there is “no other use permitted.”

“The City would never have sold the Property to Paulding County had the City known that Paulding County would attempt to convert [the Paulding airport into a] commercial airport that would compete with Hartsfield-Jackson,” Byrd’s letter says.

The city said the development of a second commercial airport “will damage the vital economic engine and development role Hartsfield-Jackson plays for the entire region” and that the letter preserves the city’s rights to initiate litigation.

Hartsfield-Jackson’s newly named general manager, Miguel Southwell, said the city hasn’t decided whether to sue but that the letter “preserves a right we believe that we have.”

A city spokesperson said the letter was sent “in hopes that an agreement could be reached before legal action is taken,” according to the city.

Austin, who received the letter, said he believes the purpose was “to see if they can’t scare us.”

His response: “C’mon.”

Paulding airport director Blake Swafford, a chief architect of the county’s plan, said Atlanta’s position “just boggles my mind.”

“They bought the [10,000 acres] for the purpose of building a commercial service airport. So their position is they can build a commercial service airport in Paulding County, but Paulding County can’t build one?” Swafford said.

“If the city of Atlanta moves forward and decides to file a lawsuit, then of course we’ll defend it,” he said. “But at this point, there’s no change in our position.”