Effort to rule out commercial flights at Briscoe rejected

Boeing 737s won’t be landing at Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field in the foreseeable future. But on Tuesday a divided Board of Commissioners refused to say they will never land there.

By a 3-2 vote, commissioners rejected a call to rule out the big commercial flights that many Lawrenceville-area residents fear could jeopardize their quality of life. By the same margin, commissioners voted to direct the county staff to solicit specific proposals from three companies interested in operating the airport.

With those votes, commissioners restarted a stalled process that could eventually see Briscoe Field in private hands. A majority of commissioners said the process would provide the information needed to make a good decision about the airport’s fate.

“Is it to leave it alone? Is it to commercialize it? Is it to privatize it?” Commissioner Shirley Lasseter asked. “Those are the questions that we have never answered.”

The process began a year and a half ago when Gwinnett officials announced the county might sell or lease the airport near Lawrenceville, which serves corporate jets and other small aircraft.

Last spring the Federal Aviation Administration gave preliminary approval to Gwinnett’s application to privatize the airport. And in August three firms expressed interest.

One of those firms -- New York-based Propeller Investments -- has expressed interest in building a 10-gate terminal and launching commercial passenger service with Boeing 737s, which can seat up to 140 people.

Propeller’s proposal has shaped the debate. Supporters say commercial passenger service could create jobs and provide an alternative to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Opponents fear noise and declining property values near Briscoe Field.

Most commissioners have repeatedly said they need more information before deciding whether to privatize the airport, let alone whether that would involve the type of passenger service Propeller has proposed. But some say they already know commercial passenger service would be a mistake.

“When you buy a tiger as a house pet, that’s a bad decision,” Commissioner John Heard said. “You don’t need to study that.”

Heard proposed a resolution to rule out such flights. On Tuesday the Board of Commissioners rejected that resolution and approved a substitute measure directing the staff to seek specific proposals from the three firms.

Heard and Chairwoman Charlotte Nash voted to rule out commercial flights. Commissioners Lasseter, Lynette Howard and Mike Beaudreau voted to seek the proposals.

The Board of Commissioners also created a citizen advisory panel to study the issue and make recommendations to the commissioners.

Jim Regan, a member of a group that has rallied against commercial passenger service, said the fight isn’t over.

“This is the first skirmish of a long battle that is probably going to last for years,” Regan said.

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