Paulding airport plan faces new setback

Plans to bring airline service to a second metro Atlanta airport have hit more rough air amid a political shift on the Paulding County commission.

Paulding commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to renounce support for airline service at their tiny airport, reversing the board’s initial favorable stance.

The move doesn’t necessarily kill the plan, but it adds a considerable challenge for backers who already face legal and other obstacles.

Those obstacles include the ardent opposition of the city of Atlanta and Delta Air Lines, which have long fought efforts to create a “second airport” that might grow into a rival to city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International.

The resolution approved by the Paulding board Tuesday was to withdraw the county’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration to approve airline operations at Silver Comet Field at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport.

However, the Paulding County Airport Authority runs the airport and remains in favor of the plan and the application. So it’s yet unclear what effect the commission resolution will have.

The FAA didn’t immediately comment.

The move reflects a shift in the county commission’s makeup and stance on the airport issue since the idea was announced in late 2013 after months of behind-the-scenes planning.

Two new commissioners took seats this month after running last year on platforms opposing airport commercialization. They joined a third incumbent who was already against it.

“I think the FAA will pay attention to this. I hope they do,” said Tony Crowe, one of the new commissioners. “I think what we did today makes a statement.”

But Airport Authority chief Blake Swafford said he doesn’t think the FAA will act on the county’s move.

“I don’t think the county can act unilaterally on behalf of the airport,” Swafford said.

Todd Pownall, an incumbent who had opposed the plan from the start, said construction of the airport in 2008 was never intended as a precursor to airline service.

“The citizens of Paulding county were promised no commercial [service],” Pownall said, adding that after learning of the commercialization plan, “I vowed to fight and I never wavered from my stance.”

Pownall introduced Tuesday’s measure.

Peter Steenland, an environmental attorney who represents Paulding residents opposed to the commercialization, hopes the FAA will dismiss the commercial application.

“I don’t think you can go forward if the county does not want to,” Steenland said.

County Commission Chairman David Austin still supports the plan and said pulling out raises the possibility of a lawsuit for breach of contract. He said it also raises questions about how bonds issued to finance preliminary work on the project will be repaid.

“It’s about the future of aviation and the future of Paulding County,” Austin said.

Vernon Collett, the other new commissioner, said the threat of a lawsuit is no reason to proceed with the project.

“If we have to break a contract… sometimes in order to do the right thing, it costs you money,” Collett said. “It needs to be settled, though, because this is one issue that really divides this county.”

The airport authority partnered with private firm Propeller Investments for the airport commercialization. The authority’s long-term lease with the company requires the airport authority to apply for commercial approval from the FAA.

Propeller’s business plan included attracting a leisure-oriented airline to fly in and out of the airport, initially a few times a week. The company was previously involved in a similar effort, at Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County, that failed.

The Paulding plan quickly drew fire from some residents concerned about congestion and noise, as well as from Delta and the city of Atlanta.

Swafford and Propeller executives countered that their plan wouldn’t create a true “second airport” to rival Hartsfield-Jackson, but rather a hub of various aviation-related businesses that would create jobs.

Propeller chief Brett Smith blasted Tuesday’s move.

“It is not a surprise that the first act of these three commissioners is to attempt to stop the years-long progress of improving Silver Comet Field for the residents of Paulding County. We saw this coming.”

He added, “Delta’s M.O. all along has been to put a slew of lawyers together to disrupt this opportunity and protect their near-monopoly of air travel in metro Atlanta.”

Pownall’s resolution was part of a broader surprise plan at Tuesday’s commission meeting to block the project.

Separate measures to replace several airport authority board members were tabled. Austin said it would be unconstitutional to replace the board members because their terms have not ended. He also criticized Pownall’s move to introduce the measures without giving advance notice for the meeting’s agenda.

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