County Commissioners respond to Airport deal

Jun. 26, 2013 @ 05:04 AM

Some members of the Rutherford County Commission expressed concern over a deal struck Monday by the Rutherford County Airport Authority to purchase 10 acres of land owned by County Commission Chairman Julius Owens at nearly double the appraised value.

The Airport Authority voted to buy the 10 acre tract of land for $300,000 — or $30,000 per acre — when the county's appraised value of the land is just over $108,000. According to Airport Authority Chairman Bob Howard, an independent appraisal valued the land at $168,000.

"If the tax department is accurate with their appraised value, that is what the property is worth," said Commissioner Bo Richard on Tuesday. "For the price to be more is not appropriate."

Commissioners learned of the Airport Authority decision on Tuesday morning.

Commissioner Greg Lovelace said he learned of the decision while attending a conference in Durham.

"I do have a concern about the price," Lovelace said. "There has been a tremendous amount of money offered for property that is not valued that high but it was the state's decision. I would not have voted for that."

However, the County Commission does not have say so over the sale because the Airport Authority was set up by state statute as an independent board that can levy taxes and exercise imminent domain over adjacent property.

"The Airport Authority is just that," said Bill Eckler, Commission vice-chairman. "It is just that. They made a deal with a private citizen who happens to be the Chairman of the Board and we really have nothing to do with that."

The reason for the purchase is due to a set of trees on Owens' property that sit high enough to violate the FAA glide slope ratio for airport runways.

Commissioners approved a federal grant to help pay for the property acquisition in a meeting earlier this year.

Owens defended the purchase price of the land saying he was looking out for "what is best for me and my family."

"I've lived on that property since 1958 and I have a lot of memories and I was raised on that property and I reared my two kids on that property," Owens said. "This wasn't a decision that was made without a lot of thought and, again, the decision was made based on the needs of my family."

Airport Authority Chairman Bob Howard said there were other options but the purchase of the land was mandated by the federal government through the North Carolina Division of Aviation.

Not exploring those options fully drew the ire of commissioners.

"Their decision to buy the property instead of just looking at the tree brings into question their stewardship of taxpayer dollars," Richard said. "Even if this is a grant, it is still taxpayer dollars."

Commissioner Eddie Holland agreed saying the tree should have been the focus, not the entire 10 acres.

"The board had to make a decision because it was going to shorten the runway but I just can't agree with that decision," Holland said.

Howard said a deal had to be struck by Friday to avoid having federal money withheld from the airport because it was in violation.

"It's troubling but, like I said, it is something we will have to deal with and it is the Airport Authority that will have to deal with it," Eckler said.