Thirteen months ago, AJC reporter Kelly Yamanouchi broke the story about Paulding County’s plan to launch commercial flights at its airport. She has covered the twists and turns since then, including today’s story about how Tuesday’s election may affect developments.
The takeoff roll keeps getting longer for Paulding County’s airport expansion plan, which if successful could create a second commercial airport for metro Atlanta.
Two critics of the plan will join the county commission in January, heightening opposition within Paulding leadership.
Republicans Tony Crowe and Vernon Collett won Republican primaries. Incumbent Todd Pownall won his seat in the general election last week. All three have voiced opposition to the county’s moves to commercialize the airport, and they will make up a majority of the five-person Paulding County commission.
It’s a sharp turnabout from a year ago, when jubilant county leaders and the airport authority announced a partnership with private firm Propeller Investments to bring airline flights to the county’s tiny new airport northwest of Atlanta.
With a new mix of commissioners, the commission is likely to be markedly less gung-ho.
“If the people of this county continue to say, ‘Look, we don’t want this,’ Tony Crowe will say, ‘I hear you and I’m going to continue to do what I can for you,’” Crowe said. “I would like to see the airport authority dissolved and gone away.”
But there are limits to how much they can do to stop the commercialization effort.
That’s because the current county commission recently took steps that insulate Paulding’s airport authority from direct influence by the commission. That limits how much say the commissioners — or voters — have over the airport commercialization.
Paulding airport director Blake Swafford said “there’s no way for a third party — in this case the county is a third party — to come in and intervene in a contract between Propeller and the airport authority.”
But there could be another path for commissioners to weigh in on the airport.
An effort launched this year aims for state legislation to change the makeup of the airport authority board. A citizens steering committee formed by the Paulding commission recommended giving control of appointments to the authority to a different mix of elected officials, including each of the commissioners.
That could lead to a makeover of the authority board that would “change the direction of the airport,” said Sue Wilkins, a Paulding resident and plaintiff in lawsuits challenging airport expansion.
Propeller currently leases office space in the airport terminal, paying $850 a month. Propeller chairman Bob Aaronson issued a statement after the election saying: “We look forward to continuing our relationship with the Paulding Airport Authority and other leaders to bring jobs and an improved quality of life to the residents of Paulding County.”
Regardless of the commission makeup, ongoing legal challenges and an environmental assessment continue to delay airport commercialization.
Opponents have in the past year launched a sophisticated fight on multiple legal and political fronts to stall the commercialization effort, which hinges on federal approval for airline service and airline interest.
“God only knows what could factor into this whole situation that could impact it and throw it off course or shut it down,” Wilkins said. “Legal objections may arise, the environmental assessment may stop it, possibly the new [board of commissioners] will stop it.”
The start of the environmental assessment was delayed for months and Swafford expects it will likely take another six to eight months to complete.
Some Paulding officials, led by county commission chairman David Austin, say the biggest force behind the opposition efforts is Delta, which pledged to work with the city of Atlanta to fight Paulding’s plan.
Propeller and county backers of the plan want to attract an airline that, at least initially, would make only a few flights a week to leisure destinations. County leaders hope it would help turn the lightly used airport into a jobs center, drawing related aviation businesses.
But Delta and the city of Atlanta oppose any operation that might evolve into a competitor for Hartsfield-Jackson International. Various ideas for a second metro airport over the years have all withered on the vine — including a failed bid by Propeller in 2012 to commercialize Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field.
In Paulding, money from lawyers or law firms with ties to Delta helped fuel candidates who oppose the airport commercialization.
Crowe also received a $1,000 contribution from Daniel & Sonya Halpern after the primary election. Dan Halpern was co-chair of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s 2009 campaign.
Even with a divided board of commissioners, some are optimistic about some sort of compromise.
“I think there’s gonna be a reset after the first of the year,” said former Paulding commission chairman Jerry Shearin, known for building the airport during his tenure. “Everyone will sit down and talk. That’s what I anticipate because they’re all intelligent people.”
Legal challenges to airport commercialization include an open meetings lawsuit and a lawsuit challenging a $1 million loan from a different county authority for the airport. The city of Atlanta has also threatened potential legal action related to an old land deal with Paulding that involves airport property.
Paulding officials and Delta have each asked the U.S. Department of Transporation to investigate the other. The DOT said it is looking into issues raised by both sides.
Attorneys for Paulding residents had raised legal questions with the FAA about the deal approved in September between the county and the airport authority, essentially putting control of the airport into the hands of the airport authority and out of the hands of the board of commissioners — before the new anti-commercialization commissioners take their seats in January.
The opposition’s strategy has been a string of challenges and delays to create further holdups. Swafford has said he anticipates another lawsuit after the environmental assessment is done.
But Shearin thinks there’s a chance to resolve the issue and make the airport a job creator one way or another.
“It’s a very polarizing time right now in Paulding,” Shearin said. “Everybody just needs to sit down and be calm and talk, and see the other guy’s side.”