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If the planes go, what could be next?

CHESAPEAKE — This time next year Lawrence County might possibly not have an airport and for at least one commissioner that reality could be a way to improve the county’s bottom line.

Last week Commission President Bill Pratt sent a letter to Irene Porter, program manager for the Detroit region of the Federal Aviation Administration. Porter is in charge of the grants that the county receives from the federal agency.

“We need to know basically what will happen if Lawrence County no longer has an airport,” Pratt said. “What are the repercussions if Lawrence County doesn’t have a airport as far as paying back grants? There may not be any, but I suspect there is.”

In fact, Pratt puts an estimate on what the county might owe as far as paying back grants at between $600,000 to $800,000.

“That is not a firm figure,” he said.

That money could come from the proceeds of any sale of the land where the airport sits.

In 1936 the land was deeded to the county commission from the North Kenova Holding Co., and C.L. and Mabel Ritter. The county was allowed to use the property as long as it was the site of an airport. Should the county shut down the airport for a period of one year, the property would revert back to the original conveyors.

Richard Wilson, a current heir of the holding company, has long been a vocal opponent of the airport, saying the land is in a prime location and should be developed for commercial use.

Currently the commission is in the middle of an eminent domain lawsuit to acquire 47 additional acres owned by North Kenova but not part of the 78 acres that is the Lawrence County Airport.

The county had wanted to acquire that acreage primarily to cut down trees causing hazards at the ends of the runways.

“We have concerns about the safety of the airport and that is one reason we are involved with the eminent domain lawsuit,” Pratt said.

Another safety issue Pratt discusses in his letter to Porter is the close proximity of the airport to three public schools — Chesapeake middle and high schools and Burlington Elementary School — and the heavily traveled 17th Street Bridge going into Huntington, W.Va.

Despite the lawsuit and a recent grant application for funding to improve runway lighting, the airport could go on the auction block.

“The county is considering marketing the airport for sale,” Pratt said. “We do have an estimated appraisal of $8.5 million. If the property was no longer an airport and some person bought that land and developed it, the county would stand to gain from real estate taxes. If a business came in and sold goods like a Target and Home Depot, the county could stand to gain from sales taxes that the county has missed out on.”

However, if the current airport were sold, that might not mean the county would be out of the airport business, but at a different location in the county.

“That depends on what the FAA says,” Pratt said. “If they see this as a real possibility and were willing to help financially, that could happen, to put in another air field.”

Pratt estimates costs of a new airfield to be in the range of $5 million.

“That’s not going to happen if the county would have to absorb that,” he said. “But a runway that is 10,000 feet. Fedex could land a plane with all cargo and that would benefit Lawrence County.”