Commissioners grill Authority Chairman over land deal

Held decision on airport takeover to August
Jul. 02, 2013 @ 08:39 AM

Rutherford County Commissioners got their first opportunity to publicly seek information regarding a recent land transaction involving the Rutherford County Airport Authority and the current County Commission Chairman Julius Owens during the July meeting of the Commission Monday night.

In the end, Commissioners tabled a potential move to take over the Airport Authority until their August meeting.

Through a local bill passed by the General Assembly, the Commission can take over the Airport Authority but Commissioners elected to gather more information before making a decision.

"We need to know what the immediate, short-range and long-range budget effects if this does happen," said Commissioner Greg Lovelace.

Earlier in the meeting, Bob Howard, Airport Authority chairman, faced pointed questions from commissioners including some displeasure with the deal.

Last Monday, the Airport Authority voted to purchase land owned by Owens' for $300,000. The county had a tax appraisal of the land and buildings of $108,400 and Howard said two independent appraisers set the value of the property and buildings at approximately $168,000.

The Airport Authority purchased the property because of one tree that violated the airport's federally mandated glide slope ratio.

Commissioners had initially expressed questions over the transaction last week. That turned to some quips Monday night.

"Since this came out, I have had a lot of people want to sell me 10 acres of land," said Commissioner Eddie Holland. "I tell them not to come to the County Commission, go to the Airport Authority."

After drawing a laugh, Holland did take a serious tone.

"Personally, since I've been serving we have gone through a lot of turmoil and we have lost the trust of the people," Holland said. "I think this deal doesn't have the public trust either.

"I think this is really sad for the county."

Howard explained the Airport Authority's role and how it relates to business at the airport.

"It is actually created on state statute and it grants certain powers to the Airport Authority," Howard said. 'I think the main reason was to take the politics out of what the airport can and can't do."

Howard also rehashed what prompted the deal, including how there were other options possible such as condemnation and displacing the runway threshold, moving the runway away from the tree in question.

"We sat down with possibilities and condemnation … we weren't going to do that," Howard said. "There was displacing the threshold and that was a possibility and cutting of the trees was an issue from way back."

Howard also told commissioners the Airport Authority did not negotiate the price and received the go-ahead to pay the price by the North Carolina Division of Aviation.

He said the property is part of the airport layout plan but also admitted that Owens' property does not share a boundary with the airport.

"I was told one time that you will have to do something that will really stink but when you look back you will realize it was the right thing to do," Howard said.

He said the Authority recently purchased 52 acres of property located northeast of the airport. That, along with Owens' property was paid by federal grant dollars.

"It's a done deal and we have land. I wouldn't have voted for it but we have to look at how to make this positive," Lovelace said.

Eckler joined Holland in expressing concern over the purchase of the property.

"This was not a No. 1 priority on my list," Eckler said. "I just felt there were other options out there that weren't pursued."

Howard said the issue "has gone on for decades" and even laid blame on the previous Airport Authority that negotiated a tentative agreement to provide an easement and remove the tree on Owens' property for $12,000.

"The Airport Authority Chairman at the time decided to not follow up on the deal," Howard said. "I would say this has gone on for decades, not just the last three years."

In other business:

• Boy Scout Troop 129 based in Spindale, presented the colors prior to the start of the meeting. Eagle Scout South Bright, Life Scout Matt Robinson, Life Scout Adam Blecher and Star Scout Ethan Wallace presented the flag.

In other business, commissioners:

• appointed Tim Mathis to the Transit Advisory Committee;

• approved Owens as a voting delegate to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners Annual Conference;

• approved tax refunds and releases;

• approved awarding service revolvers to Cpl. Lee Allen and Det. Ronald Bailey of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department;

• approved an agreement between the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department and the Prisoner Reporting Section of the Social Security Administration;

• approved a bid of $8,500 from MBAT for a study of the Rutherford County Detention Center's female inmate capacity;

• approved fire service contracts with fire departments for the county service districts;

• approved a resolution of support for financing for the Chimney Rock Volunteer Fire Department;

• approved a local match resolution for N.C. Rural Center grant funds;

• approved a resolution requesting Smoky Mountain Center to continue local grant committee recommendations;

• tabled a public hearing on Farmland Preservation ordinance changes to August;

• approved the Department of Social Services contract conflict of interest statement;

• denied two late applications for the OA Homestead Exclusion;

• approved budget amendments;

• approved an amended project ordinance for the livestock educational facility.