Authority members speak on land deal

Jul. 09, 2013 @ 05:07 AM

There has been much discussion over the deal approved by the Rutherford County Airport Authority to purchase 10 acres of land owned by County Commission Chairman Julius Owens at twice its appraised value.

Last week, commissioners discussed a possible takeover of the Airport Authority as provided under a local bill filed by Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherfordton, and passed by the General Assembly in June.

More recently, some members of the Airport Authority have spoken about the land purchase where the Authority paid $300,000 for Owens’ homestead that was valued independently at $168,000 by two different independent appraisers.

“It depends on what perspective you are looking from,” said Authority member Robert Ralph. “If you are looking at it from someone looking for the best interest of the airport, we have to do what we can to clear the approaches and that is an overriding concern. If you are looking at it as a taxpayer, you may have a different opinion of overpaying for something.”

The land was purchased to allow the Authority to cut down a tree that interfered with the federally-mandated glide slope ratio. Authority members said if the problem was not resolved, the airport would stand to lose approximately $150,000 yearly in federal funds.

“There was a time limit from the FAA and the Division of Aviation,” said Authority member Jamie Lou Padgett. “It was either do it or we would not be considered an important airport.”

In 2010, the Airport Authority reached a signed tentative agreement with Owens allowing for an easement to remove the tree at a cost of $12,000. However, that arrangement was never enforced after being signed.

Additionally, the Airport Authority could have used eminent domain to condemn the property and remove the tree. But, Authority Chairman Bob Howard said they “weren’t going down that road.”

“I believe Mr. Howard met with Mr. Owens and I don’t think Mr. Owens was receptive to the easement,” Padgett said. “He loved his tree.”

Ralph said using eminent domain may not have been cost-efficient.

“When you are looking at it from the county’s perspective, we overpaid for that property by $13,000 in county money,” Ralph said. “I don’t know what the legal costs would have been to get it condemned but it probably would have been more than $13,000.”

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Both Ralph and Padgett said the Authority was up against a deadline with the threat of federal money being pulled because the airport would not be in compliance if the tree wasn’t removed.

“In retrospect, with the information we had at the time, that was the best decision or we would lose the funding,” Padgett said. “I thought it should have been less money.”

Both also said they understand the air of impropriety surrounding the land deal.

“The situation was taken advantage of and we were overcharged but we knew that,” Ralph said. “When somebody knows that you really want and need that item, they are going to push the price up as much as they can.

“I don’t agree with paying more than it was appraised for. If I was on the County Commission, I don’t think I could have done that.”

“I feel that greed entered the picture and I have a bad feeling that way,” Padgett added.

Now, Padgett said, the goal is to move past the issues surrounding the deal.

“I’m concerned and I don’t think it looks good,” Padgett said. “But now we can move forward with marketing the airport.”

The Airport Authority is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. today at the terminal at Marchman Field.