December 2013: A judge rules in favor of the airport and county in the bond funding case. Residents pledge to appeal.
Attorneys announce a settlement of the FAA case, calling for an environmental assessment that will delay the commercialization of the airport for months.
January 2014: Paulding residents file a third legal challenge, questioning airport leases and a loan made to fund the taxiway expansion.
Delta Air Lines has no planes and no operations in Paulding County, some 40 miles from its Atlanta hub.
But, in the broad, multi-pronged campaign to block plans for the commercialization of Paulding’s airport, the airline is one of the biggest players.
No longer is the opposition limited to a ragtag handful of local residents. Joining the fight are at least four heavy-hitting law firms. So far, those firms combined have filed three lawsuits; submitted open records requests for piles of documents; taken depositions from airport and county officials; and started a website and a nonprofit 501(c)(4) — a “social welfare” classification that includes issue advocacy groups.
Paulding County officials says the legal opposition is being financed by Delta. They also say Delta is meddling where Delta doesn’t belong — in a local matter.
The Paulding County Commission wants to bring limited commercial service to Silver Comet Field to boost the local economy. But Delta officials have argued that once a second airport develops, it could open the door to something much larger, which could damage prospects for Hartsfield-Jackson.
Some residents oppose the commercialization plans because of concerns about traffic, noise, pollution and property values.
The plans for airline service in Paulding are now on hold for several months, if not longer, pending an environmental assessment by the Federal Aviation Administration. The assessment is required as part of a settlement of a legal challenge by residents.
On Wednesday, Paulding airport director Blake Swafford outlined a five-year plan for the airport, including new corporate hangars and areas for development, runway and taxiway work, additional parking and road construction.
Residents pushed for an opportunity to comment at the meeting, but the airport authority blocked that, saying they hadn’t followed proper procedures. After the meeting, they voiced their concerns about expanding the airport.
As for who is funding the lawsuit or paying the law firms, the residents aren’t telling. Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter also declined to comment on that, but added, “Delta absolutely remains opposed to a secondary airport in Atlanta.”
Paulding leaders express skepticism over the ability or inclination of the resident activists to pay the tens of thousands of dollars those law firms typically charge. Delta already has been a client for at least three of the four firms, which are known for their corporate and political ties.
Several weeks ago, McKenna Long & Aldridge attorney Stefan Passantino formed a nonprofit group called Committee to Protect Paulding County in opposition to the airport’s expansion.
Listed as CEO of the nonprofit is Chip Lake, a Republican consultant and former adviser to U.S. Rep. Phil Gingery. The CFO is Rick Thompson, political consultant and former director of the state ethics commission. Although McKenna Long & Aldridge has represented Delta in other matters, Passantino said Delta “is not the client here.”
While Paulding officials were once confident they didn’t need approvals from residents to move forward with their plan, Delta’s backing has significantly bolstered residents’ efforts to stop plans for the airport.
On the morning the airport announced its plans to attract airline flights, Delta chief executive Richard Anderson came out swinging.
With the city of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed, “we will work together to oppose any investment in that facility,” Anderson said. “The investment needs to go into Hartsfield-Jackson.”
Residents filed a legal challenge to the FAA’s environmental approvals of the Paulding airport. They were represented by Peter Steenland, an attorney with law firm Sidley Austin. Steenland happens to be the brother of former Northwest Airlines chief executive Doug Steenland, who worked for Anderson at Northwest and negotiated the Delta-Northwest merger with Anderson.
Delta’s pilots union also deployed representatives to a meeting of residents who oppose the commercialization and e-mailed letters urging pilots to contact their elected representatives about their opposition to a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.
“Delta Air Lines is the largest employer in the state, the expansion will raise our cost of doing business, and when Delta sneezes, Georgia gets a cold,” the letter from the union to pilots said.
Delta pilot Tim Heiple attended the Paulding airport authority meeting Wednesday and said he’s concerned it could take away from funding at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Emphasizing that he was not sent by Delta, Heiple said, “Hartsfield is a very, very valuable asset.”
Some question why Delta has taken such a strong position against an airport that likely will be merely a blip compared Hartsfield-Jackson.
“I suppose they just don’t want any form of competition,” said State Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas.
David Austin, the Paulding County commission chairman, thinks the U.S. Justice Department should look at antitrust issues such as monopolistic practices.
He said the county has already spent about $20,000 defending itself in a legal challenge by residents over airport bonds.
And even though his airport is trying to attract airline service, he isn’t happy with Delta’s interest in Paulding so far.
“I would just say, ‘Stay out of Paulding,’” Austin said. “Don’t cost us any more money in courts and lawyers.”