Hundreds attend public hearing on Paulding airport commercialization

With a key hurdle for a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta hanging in the balance, hundreds of Paulding County residents from both sides of the fight turned out at an airport hangar on a rainy night to voice their opinions.

The public hearing Tuesday night on a draft environmental assessment for the airport commercialization project came more than two years after Paulding County officials announced a plan to bring airline flights to their tiny airport about 35 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Since then, a flurry of lawsuits, political fights and flare-ups of staunchly-held beliefs between family members and neighbors have made the airport expansion project into one of the most contentious issues in years for this community.

The hearing drew more than 300 people including residents in favor of the airport commercialization plan as well as those strongly opposed to it. More than 70 people signed up to speak. Many ceded their time to others, leaving about 40 people who took the microphone during the public comment period, which lasted roughly three hours.

At its core, the environmental assessment looks at issues such as effects on wetlands and endangered species and the potential noise the airport would create.

But many opposed to the airport expansion spoke of potential disruption to their way of life in a bedroom community, where the airport sits next to forested land and a wildlife management area.

“Most folks moved to Paulding County to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city of Atlanta, Riverdale, College Park, etc.,” said Paulding resident Kenneth Coggins.

“Please take your noise, your pollution away from here, from our beautiful surroundings,” said Paulding resident Bob Board. “We will take our current way of life, our pristine forest and abundant wildlife just as they are today.”

Some residents raised opposition to the way the airport commercialization plan was hatched with little public input and questioned forecasts for airline traffic. Three of five county commissioners now oppose the airport commercialization.

Attorneys for opponents also argue that the habitat of animals like the Northern long-eared bat could be threatened, noting that bats help with insect control and preventing damage to crops.

Delta Air Lines has vocally opposed the Paulding airport commercialization and Delta CEO Richard Anderson has said he would work with the city of Atlanta “to oppose any investment in that facility,” saying all resources should be spent on keeping Hartsfield-Jackson — where Delta has its hub — strong.

But those in favor of commercializing the airport talked of progress and the opportunity to generate more jobs.

“We’re looking at people that disagree, but in the end, I’m about bringing jobs to Paulding,” said Paulding commission chairman David Austin.

“Progress is progress. We never like it when it’s in our backyard, but we like the benefits that it brings,” said Paulding resident Terry Tibbitts. “The jobs that potentially can be generated by this airport represent high-tech, good-paying jobs.”

Brett Smith, principal with Propeller Investments, which originally partnered with the Paulding airport authority to pursue the commercialization plan, said the hearing showed “there is clear support in the community.”

The long-awaited public hearing and environmental assessment were required in a settlement of a legal challenge against the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013.

Meanwhile, other lawsuits continue between residents, the airport authority and the county over the airport commercialization plan.

The draft environmental assessment found that commercialization would have no significant impact. If the final report comes to the same conclusion, it could clear a major hurdle for the airport commercialization.

However, residents in opposition to the plan could also file a legal challenge and seek an injunction to block the commercialization. The FAA could also decide to do a more extensive study with an environmental impact statement.

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