Delta, Paulding residents voice opposition to airport commercialization in environmental assessment process

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June 25, 2014 - Paulding County - Planes are parked on the tarmac are in an area that is planned for jet operations. New hangers are under construction. The expanded taxiway is visible behind them. The terminal is at left. Taxi way expansion has been completed, and construction continues in FBO area of Paulding County Airport. First, Delta CEO Richard Anderson said he would fight Paulding County's effort to commercialize its airport. Then residents filed four legal challenges. Now, the city of Atlanta is threatening legal action, saying Paulding, which purchased land from Atlanta for the airport back in 2007, is in breach of contract on that deal. Paulding officials deny that and say Atlanta's opposition flies in the face of the regionalism that Mayor Kasim Reed spoke about to leaders there a few years ago. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

A group of Paulding County residents and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines voiced strident opposition to plans to attract airline service to Paulding’s airport.

A filing by an attorney for a group of residents in Paulding said the Federal Aviation Administration should not attempt “to transform a sleepy general aviation airport… into an airport served by limitless numbers of large, commercial passenger and cargo, turbine-powered aircraft.”

The written comments came amid an environmental assessment of the plans to commercialize the general aviation airport now known as Silver Comet Field.

A draft of the environmental assessment completed in October 2015 did not show any significant environmental impacts that could block the commercialization, a step forward for the airport commercialization effort.

But the draft could change in response to public comments. Hundreds of Paulding residents and others attended a public hearing on the matter Dec. 1. Dozens commented, including numerous residents on both sides of the issue.

“We need to bring industry to our county to provide jobs for folks,” said Paulding resident Bill Stevens in comments. “I say yes to the commercializing of the airport.”

But others voiced opposition to the changes a commercial airport could bring.

According to the comments filed by Peter Steenland, the attorney with law firm Sidley Austin who represents those residents in opposition, the environmental assessment “ignores two realistic possibilities: (1) that after expanding the airport, no one will come leaving taxpayers to foot the bill, or (2) that it’s built and almost everyone comes,” including airlines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

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Paulding County airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Steenland says he thinks the process should be halted pending a court decision on whether the Paulding County Airport Authority has the legal ability to seek commercial service.

Three of five members of the current board of commissioners in Paulding oppose the commercialization, and passed a resolution in early 2015 to withdraw the application to the FAA for commercialization. In November, they filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of the Paulding County Airport Authority to pursue commercial service without support from the county.

Steenland also argues that a more extensive environmental study should be done before the airport can be commercialized. Such a study, known as an environmental impact statement, would further delay the commercialization effort.

An attorney for Delta in his filing argued that the FAA should “defer to local governments on decisions about whether to build or commercialize an airport,” and “consider the economics and the need to safeguard the public investment” in its review.

“Hartsfield-Jackson represents billions of dollars in federal, state and local investment, as well as private investment from its airlines,” wrote Kenneth Quinn of law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, representing Delta. It has “robust and well-established infrastructure to support commercial service (e.g. roads, hotels, rails, etc.) which does not exist in Paulding County.”

The FAA is reviewing the comments.

Delta issued a statement saying that “commercializing this airport is a bad idea.”

“The city of Atlanta has confirmed it has available gate space, with expansion plans already underway,” Delta said in its written statement. “That’s why Delta has long opposed any plans for a secondary commercial airport in Atlanta, which would divert resources from Hartsfield-Jackson,” the airline said.

Paulding airport director Blake Swafford, county commission chairman David Austin and supporters of the commercialization effort have emphasized the jobs and economic growth that could be created in the county through a commercial airport.

Meanwhile, Paulding County commissioners have been at loggerheads over the reappointment of board members that sit on the Paulding County Airport Authority board. A significant change in the makeup of the airport authority could influence the airport commercialization effort.


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