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Asheville’s airport deal: Unintended consequences

Leadership issues in Asheville could be example of what awaits in Charlotte

By Mark Barrett
Asheville Citizen-Times

More Information

  • Charlotte airport authority bill delayed to seek answers
  • The Charlotte Airport Authority bill

    •  Creates a 13-member board to oversee the airport, with one member each appointed by the mayor of Charlotte, the Charlotte City Council, the governor, Senate president pro tem, House speaker, and the county commissioners of Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union, Lincoln, Iredell and Cabarrus counties. The board members would elect their remaining two members. Members could serve up to two consecutive four-year terms.

    •  Gives the authority power to enter into contracts, issue bonds, hire and fire personnel, and hire and set the compensation for the airport director. It would also have limited power of eminent domain to seize property, if it was required to take the property to satisfy federal regulations.

    •  Requires the city to hand over all title and claim to the airport property and assets within 90 days. The airport’s total assets were valued at nearly $2 billion in fiscal 2012. The authority would take ownership.

    •  Requires the authority to hold monthly meetings, subject to the same open-meetings laws as other public bodies. The authority must submit an annual report and budget to the surrounding counties.

    •  Pays the board for travel expenses and meals for meetings; entitles members to free airport parking while on official business.

    Ely Portillo

ASHEVILLE Legislation designed to streamline operation of Asheville Regional Airport is, so far, having the opposite effect.

As a result of the N.C. General Assembly’s approval of a bill last summer to make the airport an independent agency, five different local governments are being asked to adopt special zoning for property around the airport to satisfy federal regulators.

State government, or perhaps even the city, could find itself on the hook to pay $2.2 million or more to bring about a land transfer mandated by the law.

And a second battle could be brewing between city government and the airport over who sits on the airport’s governing board.

Last August, the board refused to accept Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy as a member at a contentious meeting in which the terms of the legislation were at issue. Now, Bellamy says city council should remove and replace its appointee to the airport board, Chairman David Hillier, before his term expires.

Dealing with the issues is keeping bureaucrats and politicians in Asheville, Raleigh, Atlanta and Washington busy and has frayed relations between the city government and the airport. There have been two vacancies on the airport’s governing board for months, although one was filled recently.

Airport Director Lew Bleiweis worries that the issues could even affect the airport’s ability to get federal funds for a major runway repair project, although Bellamy calls that concern a “red herring.”

The Asheville situation could also be a cautionary tale for officials in Charlotte. State Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, both Matthews Republicans, are pushing bills in the General Assembly this year to make a similar transfer of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The Senate bill, moving the airport from city control to a Charlotte Airport Authority, has already passed two committees. The bill is also sponsored by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, a central figure in changing the ownership of Asheville Regional Airport.

Since the 1930s, Charlotte Douglas has been a unit of Charlotte city government. About 90 percent of the language in the Rucho-Brawley bills appears to have been lifted from last year’s Asheville law.

Why the fuss?

In Asheville, two factors have caused most of the problems.

Members of an all-Democrat City Council are still unhappy about the transfer of an asset, without monetary compensation, that city taxpayers paid to establish in 1958.

And the Federal Aviation Administration has raised concerns about the state legislation, saying some of its provisions might violate the terms of FAA grants the airport has received for years.

The airport technically became an independent agency last year. But the FAA still recognizes city government and Buncombe County as the airport’s “sponsors,” with responsibility to oversee use of FAA funds.

Giving the airport the ability to be its own sponsor, thus ending the need for city council or the Buncombe Board of Commissioners to approve many airport actions, was a primary goal of the legislation to make the airport independent.

But to do that, the FAA wants assurance that the transfer will not reduce the airport’s ability to acquire adjacent property or weaken zoning controls. And the FAA wants compensation for property the 2012 legislation says should be given to state government.

“The airport owner is required to take appropriate action to protect the airspace around the airport and, to the extent reasonable, restrict the use of land adjacent to or in the immediate vicinity of the airport ,” FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

The legislation limited local government’s ability to condemn property in an industrial park near the airport and transferred zoning authority over airport property from the city of Asheville to Buncombe County.

Bleiweis, the airport director, said he does not expect the condemnation issue to be a problem once the airport explains the situation to the FAA.

He also said he does not think it will be difficult to get local governments with jurisdiction over land near the airport – Asheville, Buncombe County, Henderson County, Fletcher and Mills River – to adopt zoning that would satisfy the FAA.

“They all seem very willing to participate in making sure they protect the asset of the airport,” he said.

Land transfer issues

It may be more difficult to deal with the state legislation’s order that Asheville transfer 50 acres it owns at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center to state government without payment. That acreage was originally intended for airport use.

A November letter from an FAA regional official in Atlanta to Bleiweis says the property can’t be transferred unless an amount equivalent to the fair market value of the land is reinvested in the airport.

The FAA imposes the requirement for property purchased using federal money, as the 50 acres apparently were. Market value of the property isn’t known.

The Buncombe County Tax Department values similar land nearby at $43,559 an acre. That figure would yield a value of $2.2 million for the 50 acres, but tax values are often on the low side compared to market rates and per-acre values for some tracts in the area are higher.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican who co-sponsored the airport transfer bill, said the provision was intended to take care of uncompleted steps following a 1985 transaction that gave the state control of the Agricultural Center property.

He and the city, however, disagree on the meaning of the transaction, which was structured as a lease. The city got $500,000 as part of the deal and used the money to buy buses for its transit system.

McGrady understands the FAA’s position to mean Asheville would have to pay the property’s value to the airport unless the FAA grants a waiver.

But in normal property transfers, the party receiving property gives money to the party losing it. In this case, that would mean the state Department of Agriculture would pay the city.

Clark’s letter does not say who would pay whom, only that FAA approval would “be contingent upon the net proceeds, based on fair market value, being reinvested in the Asheville Regional Airport.”

Multiple agendas

Before last year, the airport had been governed by a board with three members appointed by the city, three by Buncombe County and one chosen by the other appointees.

The 2012 legislation changed that to give Asheville, Buncombe County and Henderson County two appointees each. That group picks the seventh member.

Bellamy said a recent city council meeting that council should start looking for a replacement for airport board chairman Hillier.

“I have repeatedly witnessed him not supporting the city’s efforts and I think it’s important to have our appointees support us,” she said.

Hillier, whose term expires in 2014, said his job is to look out for the interests of the airport, not the city’s.

To do otherwise, Hillier said, would be “a drop-dead conflict of interest.”

Moffitt and McGrady said conflicts and bureaucratic snags surrounding the changes stem in large part from Asheville making politicizing issues about the airport.

“If you approach things in a political way instead of a practical way, then it makes things complicated, and that’s what city council has done,” Moffitt said.

The airport’s benefit to the city continues no matter who governs it, he said, and the services it provides are the return on city residents’ investment in it years ago.

But Bellamy said city council had “a great working relationship” with the airport before the legislation changing its status came along.

“It was not a good idea to begin with,” she said, citing the FAA’s concerns.

Bellamy said some of the impact of the change in the airport’s status is symbolic and some is practical.

It is only reasonable that the city would object to the loss of a major asset that its residents paid for after Buncombe County government balked, she said.

“It sets a precedent that when local governments make investments in infrastructure the state can come and take it away,” she said.

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