Atlanta files suit against Paulding airport over commercialization plan

The city of Atlanta has filed suit against Paulding County and the Paulding County Airport Authority, alleging that Paulding officials broke a promise that their airport would not go commercial and compete against Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The city of Atlanta, home of the world’s busiest airport, and its hub carrier, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, oppose Paulding’s efforts to commercialize its airport.

But the city of Atlanta doesn’t control Paulding’s airport.

Instead, it aims to use as leverage a parcel of land sold by the city of Atlanta to Paulding County ten years ago for the development of the county’s new airport.

The city of Atlanta sold 162.8 acres of land to Paulding County in 2007, a small piece of the 10,165 acres of land Atlanta bought in Paulding in 1975 for a potential second commercial airport. Atlanta also in the 1970s bought land in the Dawson Forest for the same purpose.

“From the outset of the development of the Paulding Airport, Paulding County promised that the Paulding Airport would be -- and would always remain -- a general aviation airport that would not be used to provide commercial airline service,” the city of Atlanta contends in its lawsuit.

However, the land sale contract did not include language that could stop Paulding from launching a plan announced in 2013 to commercialize the airport and attract airline service. 

The city says it “relied on the documented mutual understanding that there was no intent to have a commercial service airport at Paulding County.” It cites materials from Paulding officials in 2004, comments from then-manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Ben DeCosta at an Atlanta City Council meeting in 2007 and past correspondence from Blake Swafford, who was director of Paulding’s airport.

The city of Atlanta has in recent years threatened to take legal action over Paulding’s airport commercialization efforts.

A city spokesperson said in a written statement that “we were hopeful the situation would resolve itself without further intervention by the City... Unfortunately, resolution does not appear to be imminent and the City felt compelled to state its position clearly on the record.”

Meanwhile, Paulding voters in recent years have elected several commissioners who oppose the commercialization of the airport, swinging the county commission from majority pro-commercialization to majority anti-commercialization. Today on the five-person commission, four county commissioners are against commercialization, while the county chairman David Carmichael is in favor of it.

The Paulding County Airport Authority remains in favor of commercialization. But the airport commercialization plan has been halted amid litigation.

This year, a transaction involving the parcel of land purchased from the city came to light.

In late December 2016, then-Paulding County chairman David Austin on his last day in office quietly executed a deed to transfer the property from the county to the airport authority -- which would give the airport authority more control.

The revelation led to the termination in March of the county’s longtime law firm, Talley, Richardson & Cable, which prepared the deed. Paulding-firm Talley, Richardson & Cable’s attorneys include former Georgia Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson.

Because Paulding was supposed to seek authorization before executing the land transfer outlined in a 2014 intergovernmental agreement, the two sides have been working on a joint corrective action to submit to the FAA.

In its lawsuit, the city of Atlanta contends it is now entitled to forfeiture of the property, or a covenant added to the deed preventing the property from being used for any purpose other than general aviation.

Paulding airport director Terry Tibbits declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The disagreements in Paulding over airport commercialization have led to multiple lawsuits, which the Federal Aviation Authorization said must be resolved before the plan to launch airline service could move forward.

The ongoing disputes over airport commercialization in Paulding have even frustrated the Federal Aviation Administration.

This month, the FAA in a letter to Paulding officials wrote that it has received letters from various officials and legal counsel “purporting to represent” Paulding County or the Pauding airport and contradicting each other, which “have left the FAA with serious concerns about the ability of the County and the Authority to satisfactorily perform their obligations as sponsors of a federally-obligated airport.”

“It is not the FAA’s responsibility to resolve disputes between discordant co-sponsors,” said the letter signed by Southern region airports division director Steven Hicks to Paulding county and the Paulding airport authority. The disputes and litigation over commercialization “are impeding the airport’s development and, potentially, it safe and efficient operation.”

Hicks wrote that “going forward, the FAA will respond only to joint communications,” according to the letter.

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