Planes unload passengers during a community fly-in recently at the Lawrence County Airpark.
Planes unload passengers during a community fly-in recently at the Lawrence County Airpark.

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For sale?

Published 9:28am Wednesday, June 19, 2013

FAA letter not stopping commission in airport development

CHESAPEAKE — The Lawrence County Commission is moving forward with plans to see if the county’s airport in Chesapeake can be turned into a commercial development. That action comes despite a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration that states it cannot consider releasing the county from running an airport for economic development since the county has used federal funds for improvements at the site.

“We are pursuing the idea of marketing it for sale,” Commission President Bill Pratt said.

Since 2001 the county has received $881,281 in federal funds for improvements or a small acquisition of land. Most of that money has been spent on master plan updates, runway safety studies, pavement rejuvenation, surveys for land acquisition for runway upgrades and acquisition of land for an access road to a small cemetery on the property.

“In my opinion you can file for a release from federal obligation,” Pratt said. “If they say no that means, in my opinion, we pay the $881,000. I think if the entire airport was bought with FAA money (not being able to) would be true. But it wasn’t. That is where we need a clarification since that property was deeded to the county. I am not sure the FAA would have authority on the property.”

In April Pratt sent a letter to the FAA asking if there were any ramifications to developing the airport land into a commercial venture that would bring much needed revenue into the county. The commissioner was concerned that the county could be under some obligation since it had received federal funds for upgrading the acreage.

On May 31 Pratt received a reply to his letter from Marlon Pena, program manager for the Detroit district office of the FAA.

“In accepting Airport Improvement Program funds, the airport sponsor (i.e. the county) has agreed to specific terms and conditions as described in the grant assurances,” the letter states. “… thus the sponsor has obligated itself in binding grant agreements to comply with these assurances.”

The majority of acreage at the airport was deeded to the county in the 1930s by the Wilson and Ritter families with the contingency that the land be used exclusively as an airport. If the county wanted to cease running the airport, the property would revert back to the heirs of the two families, according to the deed.

Most of the airport land belongs to the Wilson heirs with Richard Wilson a longtime vocal supporter to selling the property commercially. Pratt wants to come up with an arrangement that would allow the county and Wilson to benefit from the sale of the land to a commercial developer. Pratt envisions an upscale shopping complex that would increase property and sales tax revenue to the county.

However Pena’s letter states that “any proceeds from a sale are expected to stay with the airport or another airport. They cannot go back to the county.”

The grant stipulations state that releasing the county from operating an airport can only be justified if that act benefits the airport.

“The non-aviation interest of the sponsor or the local community — such as making land available for economic development — does not constitute an airport benefit that can be considered in justifying a release and disposal,” the grant states.

On Friday the commissioners will meet with the Wilson family and their attorneys to determine if an agreement can be reached that would allow development to occur.

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  • Digi

    I for one am glad to see more people taking notice and commenting on this! Let’s hear some explanations as to why this is such a great idea when no one else sees it? I see no one else defending this idea here.

    (Report comment)

  • A_Ziffel

    I don’t understand the logic in building more retail space.
    It appears that some think that if one store is selling a million dollars that two stores will sell 2 million. Does this make sense to anyone? or is it more likely that the 2 stores will compete for the same dollars? So where is the sales tax increase?

    Oh and if the value of our property increases does that mean we pay more or less in property taxes?

    calling all economists our commissioners need a lesson

    (Report comment)

  • hearts14

    The County, up until this year has done nothing financially to help with the daily operations of the airport. The Tri-State Pilots’ Association along with Attitude Aviation (a successful business on the property) have maintained the grounds for at least the last ten years. I too believe that something strange is going on. Trying to develop land for commercial use when there are already so many vacant commercial buildings now just isn’t good business sense. The airport is an asset to the county. Please do some research before you take the word of your elected officials!

    (Report comment)

  • mikehaney

    A fast buck as we destroy our counties assets?

    (Report comment)

  • snowglobe

    This doesn’t appear to be a smart move. Seems rather silly to take away the airport to use the land for commercial use, when just across the road on US 52 is a nearly vacant shopping center that could be developed.

    (Report comment)

  • swimmingupstream

    Folks..It is so obvious here that some big development is in the works that you can see the drool pouring from the commissioners’ mouths.

    All they need to do is figure out a way to make the Wilson heirs filty rich and give the county enough dough to move the airport to another location. The only way the family would go for this is the threat that if they don’t go along the county can keep the airport there forever and the heirs will never get to spend a dime.

    (Report comment)

  • mikehaney

    Digi— Now unless there is something going on under the table
    Agree, politics as usual here in Lawrence County?? Someone is in a big hurry to get rid of the airport.

    (Report comment)

    • Digi

      Now surely nothing would go on under the table in Law Co politics? *insert sarcastic eyeroll*

      (Report comment)

  • Digi

    Well I just don’t seem to understand why Pratt is so dead set on this even now that the feds state even if they toss the airport aside, it goes back to the original owners heirs and they profit from it. The county in no way will have any proceeds. Now unless there is somthing going on under the table between the family and Mr. Pratt why is he so dead set on letting this happen? Why lose the airport for another person’s financial gain? And will the county have to pay back that almost a million in funding they blew on upkeep?

    (Report comment)

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