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Airport authority would play big role in shaping Charlotte’s westside

Charlotte Douglas International Airport has been expanding its footprint for decades, acquiring hundreds of acres from private landowners.

An independent airport authority would have a significant role in shaping that growth – possibly with big implications for the city’s tax base.

Aviation director Jerry Orr, who supports removing the airport from the city’s oversight, has long had expansive plans for the area. “Planners say we will end up owning the west side. We don’t disagree,” Orr said in 2000.

Orr says the land west of the airport could support high-technology manufacturing and distribution, and maybe new research and technology facilities similar to those around UNC Charlotte. With access to air travel, Interstates 77 and 85, and what’s expected to be one of the busiest intermodal rail yards in the country, he favors commercial over residential development.

Now Orr is seeking to buy 350 more acres just south of the airport for $35 million.

The land will be used for warehouses to support the intermodal yard, Orr said. North of the airport, on the site of what used to be the East Coast Bible College, Orr has floated plans to build a Charlotte World Trade Center to provide space for international businesses.

How authority would work

The airport authority envisioned by the legislature would be governed by a new, regional board of 13 members, appointed by the Charlotte City Council, Mecklenburg commissioners, five surrounding counties and the state Senate, House and governor.

The authority would be subject to less oversight than the city or county because members would be appointed, not elected. And the authority would have the power to continue the practice of buying land, or even taking it by eminent domain. The legislation that would create the authority says that tactic could be used to take property “for public use for an airport purpose.”

A majority of local authority board members would have to agree to use eminent domain. The authority would be specifically prohibited from using it to take land for “hotels, motels, restaurants, or industrial parks,” under the bill.

The extent of the airport authority’s powers remains open to interpretation, said Charlotte city attorney Bob Hagemann. If the airport were attempting to take land for a new runway or additional parking, that would almost certainly be allowed.

Implications for tax base

The actions of an authority could affect the city’s tax base at a time when city leaders are seeking to expand it.

If the authority were to acquire nearby land and build warehouses and other buildings, it’s possible the city of Charlotte might not receive any property tax revenue from the development, Hagemann said.

If the airport authority built new warehouses on its land and leased them to a private business at market-rate, the city and Mecklenburg County would receive no property tax revenue. But if the airport leased the buildings at a below-market price, the lease would then be subject to taxes, Hagemann said.

The airport authority would also inherit Charlotte Douglas’ healthy revenues and balance sheet. The airport is operated as a city enterprise fund, meaning that while Charlotte owns the airport and all airport employees work for the city, none of the airport’s revenue can be taken to pay for things outside the airport.

The airport gets its revenue from fees the airlines pay to use Charlotte Douglas, concession sales, federal grants and parking. Charlotte Douglas had almost $220 million worth of revenue last year, and more than $678 million of cash and cash equivalents on its balance sheet at the end of fiscal 2012. Staff Writer Steve Harrison contributed.

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