Paulding County airport agreement riles opponents

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AJC reporter Kelly Yamanouchi broke the story about Paulding County’s plan to commercialize its airport nearly a year ago. She has been following the twists and turns since then, including Tuesday’s latest development.

Paulding County’s board of commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to give the county airport authority guaranteed revenue for ten years and an additional 163 acres, to the chagrin of those who oppose the county efforts to bring in commercial flights.

Critics say the vote amounts to a power grab and an effort to sidestep opponents’ efforts to stop the rural airport’s commercialization. They say that cementing nearly $3 million of funding for the airport over ten years prevents future commissioners from being able to withhold that funding.

County and airport backers say the deal clarifies roles and puts the onus on the airport to keep a budget and become more self-sufficient.

The move comes as primary election results promise a shift among the county’s board of commissioners next year. Three candidates who have been critical of the airport commercialization efforts won primary elections earlier this year.

“This board of commissioners has made a determined decision to shut the citizens out,” said resident Anthony Avery.

The deal also addresses an issue that could have become a problem for the airport. The airport authority gave private firm Propeller Investments an option to lease up to 60 acres for aviation development. But as it turns out the authority doesn’t own all of the land. The county owned about 25 of those acres. The deal approved by the county Tuesday fixes that.

“This intergovernmental agreement is people trying to patch up things that were done incorrectly,” said Paulding commissioner Todd Pownall, who voted against the agreement. “We just gave away an asset that belongs to the county.”

An attorney for Paulding residents sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday saying the transfer of land should have required approval by the FAA.

The city of Atlanta earlier this year raised legal issues regarding that land. The city, which sold that land to Paulding, argued that Paulding’s plans for airline service are a breach of contract.

The city of Atlanta said Tuesday that it is reviewing Paulding County’s latest move and “keeping all options open.”

County backers and airport director Blake Swafford said the 10-year stream of revenue to the airport from the county, which starts at $400,000 annually and steadily declines to $175,000 in year ten, “puts the monkey on the airport’s back to become more self-sufficient.”

He said the split ownership of airport land between the county and the airport authority could have led to complications with insurance claims.

But some called the approval of the deal an end around a recently-created airport authority citizens advisory committee, created to look at governance issues. Swafford, for his part, said he thinks the deal helps to address some questions the committee had raised.

“It looks like there’s going to be less direct county involvement” in the airport, said citizens committee chair Mike Mason. “It makes who sits on the airport authority even more critical.”