After months of saying it’s the Federal Aviation Administration’s call on who should be in charge of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin finally issued his own ruling this week.
It’s the FAA’s call, he said.
So what’s changed? In some ways, not much. The ruling has both sides – the city and state Sen. Bob Rucho – claiming victory. Both are right to a degree. But Ervin’s decision does point definitively toward a next step, once you sort through what the judge did and didn’t say.
First, the victory for the city: Ervin ruled that the regional commission can’t take over the airport, at least not immediately, because the 2013 act ignored a federal mandate that requires a new federal operating certificate for any entity that wants to open or take control of an airport.
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The city had long argued that while the commission itself may be legal, it was not an agency of the city and therefore needed a new operating certificate. State lawmakers acknowledged this when they passed a new law this summer saying the airport commission can’t exercise its authority until the FAA says it can. Ervin’s ruling affirmed all that.
Which brings us to the state’s victory. Other than the offending provision, Ervin let stand the rest of the original law – as well as the 2014 clarification. That means according to the judge, state lawmakers did not violate the N.C. constitution in giving airport control to a commission, so long as it meets FAA requirements.
Just as importantly, Ervin didn’t strike down an arm-twisting provision in the 2014 law that required the city to seek an operating certificate for the commission.
The city now faces a decision. It can appeal Ervin’s ruling, or it can contest some other part of the 2013 or 2014 law. A likely candidate is the arm-twisting provision – are there First Amendment issues with forcing a city official to make a state request?
City officials feel, and we agree, that the state unnecessarily tried to take the airport from Charlotte. So the city can’t be blamed for wanting to exhaust its legal options, even if part of the motivation is to keep the airport by dragging things out.
The FAA, however, doesn’t have to wait. The city isn’t contesting that the state has the right to create an airport commission. A judge has indicated the commission’s existence is constitutional. The FAA can, and should, make a ruling on whether the commission meets all the requirements for an operating certificate.
If the answer is yes, the city can still pursue in court any other objections it has to the 2013 and 2014 laws. If the answer is no, the city keeps the airport, and everybody saves a lot of time and money in court.
For now, one of Charlotte’s biggest economic drivers is in limbo. That includes, perhaps, how city-owned land surrounding the airport might be developed. Judge Ervin has done his part, finally, to move the dispute toward resolution. It’s the FAA’s turn.