NEPA, politics, lawsuits and controversy wreak havoc at Paulding

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FAA brings Paulding airport commercialization to a halt

FAA Part 139 process

Triggered NEPA, lawsuits and controversy

Not over yet?

An airport can be characterized as an attractive nuisance, not in its normal legal denotation, but rather from the perspective of normal economic development. Runways = increased business and runwaysè noise.

In 2013, the City of Dallas, Paulding County, GA [1]was enticed by Propeller Investments to commercialize Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport (PUJ), to be renamed Silver Comet Field at Paulding Northwest Atlanta. The positive was the business the airport would generate; the negative was the noise that is generated by the aircraft there.

The airport once was owned by the City of Atlanta as a reserve in the event that a second airfield was needed. In 2007, the City sold 162 acres to Paulding for the purpose of building a General Aviation facility[2]. PUJ was the first jet-capable airport to be built in Georgia in over thirty years.  Its stated mission was to accommodate the anticipated growth in both private and business aircraft operations.  The arrival and departure patterns for the airport’s VFR and IFR flights are seamless due to its prime location just outside and underneath Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s (ATL) busy, Class Bravo airspace.

The Propeller Silver Comet concept was to create a secondary airport for the Greater Atlanta Metropolitan Airport, somewhat like Midway’s role with O’Hara, Manchester & Providence with Boston and the cluster of airports around Los Angeles International Airport. Propeller was of the opinion that KPUJ was in the midst of a demographic area which could support the flights to this expanded facility.

In order to be authorized to receive regularly scheduled or charter service with aircraft with greater than 30 seats, an airport must seek FAA certification under Part 139. That process requires that the applicant meets standards as to safety (pavement, airspace, surrounding buildings and most symbolically a security fence[i][3], etc.), operational rules, manuals and personnel.

The granting of a Part 139 certificate for the purpose of bringing air carrier service (as well as the issuance of OpsSpecs to the carrier[4]) triggers a review under the National Environmental Policy Act. That process usually attracts community participation.

The proposal created a legal frenzy with lawsuits being filed by multiple plaintiffs and based on a larger number of legal bases.

The residents of Dallas, GA availed themselves of that right and selected an attorney who defended the FAA on NEPA actions for years. Environmental reviews are difficult processes in simple cases, but the politics became embroiled in this case.

The list of candidates for seats on the county commission, if elected, would shift the tide toward commercialization and possibly clear a path toward attracting airline flights.

However, the existing commissioners created enough dissension within the sponsor(s) ranks that essential information, needed for the FAA’s environmental review, was not forthcoming.

As FAA Atlanta district manager Larry Clark is quoted as saying:

“The FAA said it ended consideration of Paulding’s airport for redesignation as a commercial facility after not receiving revisions it wanted on a required environmental assessment by a May 28 deadline. It also did not receive “any communication” from Paulding airport authority about it for three months.

The FAA said in a statement Friday it ‘terminated its consideration of the draft environmental assessment for projects at Paulding Northwest Atlanta Airport that would have supported commercial air carrier service.’

‘The agency also closed its file on the airport’s application for an air carrier operating certificate,’ the FAA stated. ‘The agency took these actions at this time because the airport did not respond to a request for revisions to the draft (environmental assessment).’

In a Tuesday letter to Tibbitts, FAA Atlanta district manager Larry Clark said a completed assessment ‘was intended to support your application’ for a commercial designation.

‘Absent an environmental review, we cannot consider your application and deem your lack of interest in pursuing the (assessment) to constitute a voluntary withdrawal” of the commercialization application,’ Clark said.”

The same report quoted Silver Comet Field airport director Terry Tibbitts as saying that he felt that the FAA action was in bad faith:

 

 

“Tibbitts said Friday the FAA wanted 11 revisions made to a draft environmental assessment between late March and late May. That included data on recreational usage and animal populations on two acres of the adjoining Paulding Forest wildlife management area included in an area needed if the current runway is lengthened for commercial airliners.

He told FAA officials in a February letter that data on the section of the Atlanta-owned forest should not be included because the area does not meet the “spirit or the intent” of the federal regulations intended to protect such land adjacent to public transportation projects.

“We believe that the FAA acted in bad faith to force an impossible deadline on us and knowing our position, and followed up with immediate termination of the 139 application for reasons that only they can explain,” Tibbitts said Friday.

Tibbetts comment seem to suggest that the FAA should have waited to see if the pro-commercialization candidates are elected in November. There is nothing to preclude PUJ from refiling its Part 139 request to upgrade to commercial service level.

It’s not the first time that economic development, environmental processes and politics have caused havoc for an airport. That’s why it properly called an attractive nuisance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It will be interesting to see whether PUJ remains a GA airport or whether the airfield becomes Atlanta’s secondary commercial airport a/k/a the Silver Comet.

[1] During the course of this development, the Board of Paulding Northwest agreed to transfer the airport to the County. While that fact has great bearing on the broader issues, it is not determinative of this discussion; so, the distinction will not be referred to herein.

[2] There is some “evidence” that Paulding promised to keep KPUJ as a GA airport only.

[3] Tearing down the security fence has been a convenient way for stopping, without FAA permission, commercial flight. Here, the reverse occurred when the airport sought to build a fence for the purpose of keeping wildlife from crossing the runway. The attorney representing the neighbors opposing commercialization saw the “ruse” to build the Part 139 precondition and unsuccessfully sought to block it.

[4] Propeller’s Paine Field venture is subject to an EA review.



 

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