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FAA brings Paulding airport commercialization to a halt

A years-long effort to commercialize a second airport in metro Atlanta came to a halt this week as the Federal Aviation Administration closed its file on the Paulding County airport’s application.

The move comes more than four years after Paulding County and its airport authority announced an ambitious plan to attract airline service. But that 2013 announcement was followed by legal challenges from residents concerned about noise, traffic and effects on the environment; along with opposition by Delta Air Lines and the city of Atlanta and political upheaval within the county.

The FAA said it is terminating its consideration of a draft environmental assessment for projects to support commercial airline service and closing its file on the Paulding County airport’s application for an air carrier operating certificate.

“The agency took these actions at this time because the airport did not respond to a request for revisions” to the draft environmental assessment, the FAA said in a statement.

Peter Steenland, an attorney for residents who opposed the commercialization, called the FAA’s move “a big victory for open government, transparency, and the environment.”

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“We are pleased that the Paulding Airport will remain a top-flite general aviation facility,” he said in a written statement.

When Paulding County announced plans to become the second commercial airport in metro Atlanta, Delta’s then-CEO Richard Anderson immediately came out in vehement opposition, saying the airline and the city of Atlanta would “work together to oppose any investment in that facility.” Delta operates its largest hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and has long opposed the development of an airport that would compete with it.

The issue pitted leading Paulding county officials against anti-commercialization residents, and against the might of one of the world’s largest airlines, heavy-hitting lawyers and lobbyists.

The city of Atlanta filed a lawsuit, residents and others filed legal challenges that halted the project, and candidates in opposition to airport commercialization won seats on Paulding’s county commission.

It’s yet to be seen what, if anything, happens next in the long-running saga.

The FAA says in the letter to Tibbitts that if the Paulding airport wishes to pursue the commercial certification, it should submit a new application with all required documentation, to be followed by an environmental review “based on the circumstances in effect at the time.”

A 20-year lease between the Paulding County Airport Authority and Silver Comet Terminal Partners, the company seeking to attract airline service to Paulding, specifies that the airport authority must “use its best efforts” to get commercial certification.

Paulding resident Sue Wilkins said in a written statement that people in the county and on the board of commissioners “deserve to take a victory lap over the FAA’s decision to dismiss the Airport Authority’s commercial service application.”

“We are very encouraged by it, yet realize the threat of commercialization is not over, therefore we will continue our fight until all things are resolved,” Wilkins added.

And, the airport commercialization issue has taken center stage in Paulding elections this year. The FAA’s move could affect candidates’ messages about the airport, and a shift in the makeup of the Paulding County commission could put supporters of airport commercialization in the majority.

It’s not clear why the Paulding County airport authority, which started the effort in 2012 towards commercialization and attracting airline service, stopped responding to the FAA’s requests.

“To date, not only have we not received a revised draft [environmental assessment], we have not received any communication from you on this matter,” FAA Atlanta Airports District Office manager Larry Clark wrote in his letter. “We therefore must assume that your interest in the [environmental assessment] has concluded and we have closed our file on the project.” And without the required environmental review, the FAA also closed its file on the application for commercial certification.

Paulding airport director Terry Tibbitts said he just received the letter Thursday and is “still evaluating it.” Silver Comet declined to comment on the FAA’s letter.

But if the airport authority does reapply for commercial certification, it might be better positioned to avoid legal pitfalls.

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