Commissioner wants Gwinnett to rule out commercial flights

A newly elected Gwinnett County commissioner will ask the county to drop the idea of commercial flights at the county’s airport near Lawrenceville.

Commissioner John Heard, whose district includes Briscoe Field, said he will wait until the County Commission has a new chairman this spring before pressing for county action on the airport. But Heard said during a recent interview that he remains “adamantly against” commercial flights.

“If you want to make me happy, revise the [airport] study to exclude commercial aviation,” Heard said. “I’m fully prepared to make that motion myself.”

Whether Heard can persuade his colleagues to go along remains unclear. Other commissioners say they haven’t ruled out commercial flights that supporters say could be an economic boon to the county.

“I’m a firm believer in taking an in-depth look at this,” Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said. “I think the public deserves a full vetting of it.”

The airport’s fate has been a matter of intense debate since Gwinnett officials announced more than a year ago that they were considering selling or leasing Briscoe Field. Three companies in August expressed interest in operating the airport.

The airport northeast of Lawrenceville has a single runway that serves corporate jets and other small aircraft, the largest of which seat up to 19 people. At least one of the companies -- New York-based Propeller Investments -- wants to bring commercial passenger service to Briscoe Field.

Supporters say passenger service could make money for the county, create jobs and provide an alternative to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

“This is the No. 1 thing that Gwinnett County can do to ensure economic success in the next generations,” said Brett Smith, Propeller Investments’ managing director.

Many county residents welcome the idea. But it has sparked opposition in Lawrenceville, where residents fear noise and safety concerns could lead to declining property values.

Opponents persuaded county commissioners to postpone consideration of the issue until early this year. Jim Regan, who has helped organize opposition to commercial flights, said his group may attend a commission meeting soon to express concerns.

“Hopefully, we’ll turn out 400 or 500 people,” Regan said.

County officials say they haven’t decided whether to privatize Briscoe Field or whether that would involve commercial flights. If they decide to sell or lease the airport, they say the process could take years. Ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration must approve any plan.

The next step would be to seek specific proposals from one or more of the three firms that have expressed interest in the airport.

Commissioners aren’t likely to act until after a new chairman is elected in March. Former Chairman Charles Bannister resigned in October after appearing before a grand jury that was investigating questionable land purchases by the county.

“I assure you, once we get the full team back on the field, we’ll be making an issue of it again,” Heard said.

Heard has campaigned against commercial flights. But he said he does not oppose privatizing Briscoe Field, as long as it remains a general aviation facility serving small aircraft.

But he’s just one vote on the five-member commission.

Commissioner Lynette Howard, elected in November with Heard, said it is possible to come up with a proposal for commercial flights that addresses community concerns. She said she wants to see specific proposals and weigh the potential costs and benefits.

“Briscoe Field could be a revenue source we can’t ignore,” Howard said.