Regional airport needs FAA's help

NORWALK As Erie County's commissioners try to bring their new airport plan in for a landing, they've
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010



As Erie County's commissioners try to bring their new airport plan in for a landing, they've found an obstacle blocking the runway.

They're calling on Ohio lawmakers Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, to help resolve a problem with the Federal Aviation Administration. The commissioners are eager to build a new airport to serve NASA PlumBrook Station to help Plum Brook expand its work and create new jobs.

Commissioners are counting on the FAA to provide federal grants to cover most of the cost, but the agency says the county doesn't qualify for federal funds. Under government rules, federal funds can't be spent on any new airport within 30 minutes of an existing federally-funded airport.

That's a problem for Erie County, which is within easy drive of several airports, including Huron County's airport in Norwalk and the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport near Port Clinton. A suggestion that Huron County could close its lightly-used airport and join with Erie County to build a regional airport has drawn little enthusiasm so far from Huron County commissioners.

"We're being asked to give up an entity that has value," Huron County Commissioner Mike Adelman said.

Tom Ferrell, chairman of the Erie County commissioners, said trying to make a deal to close the Huron County airport is a last resort. He said Monday he'd prefer to get the FAA to waive the 30-minute rule.

During a joint meeting Monday morning with Huron County's commissioners and other officials, Erie County's commissioners complained they haven't even been able to set up a meeting with the FAA to discuss the problem.

Retired Brig. Gen. David Stringer, director of the NASA Plum Brook Management Office, said the best way to get a meeting with a federal agency is to have a member of Congress request one. Federal agencies "will traditionally honor such requests," he said.

The commissioners decided to ask county administrator Mike Bixler to draft a letter asking Kaptur and Brown to help set up a meeting.

Kaptur thinks setting up a meeting with the FAA is a good idea, said Steve Katich, staff director for the congresswoman.

"The congresswoman has already offered to do that," he said.

Kaptur believes it also would be a good idea to get the governor's office involved in the discussions with FAA, Katich said. He said it isn't clear whether getting an FAA waiver is a better idea than trying to get the two counties to cooperate.

Brown's spokeswoman, Bethany Lesser, said Monday the senator is aware of Erie County's efforts to get a new airport built but will wait to find out what the commissioners need before commenting further.

Stringer, who supports building the new airport, is a private pilot who has flown into many airports. He said Monday he can't understand why the FAA's 30-minute rule applies to Erie County when it doesn't seem to apply to many other areas.

Citing airports that are near each other in cities such as Chicago and Cleveland, Stringer said, "There's a zillion precedents for airports to be operated within 30 minutes of each other."

Monday's meeting, which took place in Huron County's administration building, was organized by developer Lance Warner, who was formerly economic development director for Sandusky.

Warner said he's trying to get the airport off the ground.

"This is a once-in-a-century opportunity," he said.

Two lawyers invited by Warner, Emmett Kelly and Price Finley of the Bricker and Eckler law firm, explained there's two logical government bodies for running a new airport -- a port authority and a regional airport authority.

Both organizations can be set up by one or more counties. Both can own and lease property and issue revenue bonds and acquire property through eminent domain. Only a port authority, however, can levy property taxes, although it must get authority from a vote of the people.

Adelman estimated nine out of 10 Huron County residents he's heard from so far don't seem interested in a joint Erie and Huron county airport, particularly if it involves shutting down the local airport.

"A lot of residents are pretty comfortable with the Huron County airport," he said.

"When the people you talk to are airport owners, that's what you're going to get," Warner replied. He said he's talked to many Huron County businessmen and residents who understand the Huron County economy needs help.