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Wednesday, 29 August 2007 00:00

Deed faux pas gives animal shelter to airport

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Jackson County accidentally gave away the county’s animal shelter to the Jackson County Airport Authority 10 years ago, and now it wants it back.

The blunder was only recently discovered. The error dates back to 1998 when the county transferred both the management of the facility and the airport itself to the Jackson County Airport Authority, a separate entity from the county. The animal shelter is adjacent to the airport and was part of the same tract.

The county and the Jackson County Airport Authority are in the midst of negotiating a solution. Neither is revealing much about the negotiations. Jackson County officials want the airport authority to deed the animal shelter back to the county.

But the five-member board of the airport authority is not eager to turn the animal shelter over without getting something out of the county in return. Options could range from leasing the shelter to the county for an annual fee or selling it back to the county for a one-time payment.

“There are different opinions of people on the board, and we have not come to a consensus yet,” said Greg Hall, chairman of the airport authority.

The county has not made any financial contributions to the upkeep of the airport in several years, and the authority could use the animal shelter snafu as a bargaining tool. The airport authority has received $600,000 in grants from the Federal Aviation Administration over the past four years to fix up the airport. But the county, which had both a political and philosophical falling out with the airport authority, would not contribute the necessary matching funds to secure the grant.

The grant is still sitting there for the authority’s taking, if it can pony up a requisite $66,000 in matching funds. That could be a starting place for what the airport authority wants in exchange for the animal shelter. The airport authority discussed options at its board meeting last week.

Hall said the airport authority values its relationship with the county — which finally seems on the mend after years of head-butting — and does not want to jeopardize that.

“Things are in such a delicate balance right now,” Hall said.

 

A costly mistake?

The airport authority was the one to discover the 10-year-old blunder, and it approached the county with the news a few weeks ago.

“We checked into it and sure enough,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “How it happened nobody knows.” Westmoreland was not with the county at the time.

He said the airport authority should simply deed the shelter back to the county.

“Our point is ‘Yeah that may have happened, but it wasn’t intentional,’” Westmoreland said.

Sylva Town Manager Jay Denton, who served a stint as county manager starting in December 1998, can testify to that. Although Denton did not come on board until after the transfer was complete, he followed it closely enough to know the animal shelter was not supposed to be on the table as part of the transaction.

“The intent never would have been to sign away the animal shelter,” Denton said.

In fact, the deed states: “It is the purpose and intent of the grantor to convey the grantee all lands located ... and used in connection with the operation of the Jackson County Airport.”

The county transferred the airport largely because it was such a headache — considered more of a liability than an asset. Tom Jones, now retired, was the attorney who handled the transaction for the county in 1998, according to the deed.

The animal shelter was built in the mid-1980s on the entrance road to the airport. Little has been done to it since then. It is small by most standards, with 15 holding pens for dogs and 15 for cats. Animals can be doubled up in cages only when they come in as a pair or as puppies or kittens of the same litter. The shelter sees roughly 1,000 animals a year, according to the shelter director.

 

Lawsuit snag

Bill Austin, a pilot in Jackson County who uses the airport, said he hopes the authority is able to find matching funds for the FAA grant before it’s too late and it loses the money. The airport authority had three major projects planned for the money.

One is building a pilot’s lounge. It’s a place for pilots to go to the bathroom, check weather conditions on the computer and call in their flight plans. Another project on the wish list is a hangar for 16 planes. Less exciting but necessary is a new well. The current well water is often contaminated with mud, unfit to drink or even wash planes with, Austin said.

The plan for how to spend the money if and when the airport authority gets it has taken a drastic turn, however. The Jackson County Airport Authority is the target of a lawsuit by neighbors who live below the airport. The airport’s hillside collapsed during massive rains and washed into the neighbors’ property. The neighbors are seeking damages and want the airport to repair the collapsed hillside, which they say continues to pose a risk to their property. The lawsuit, depending on a financial award, could pose a deathblow to the airport — largely because the airport authority has no money to pay any court-ordered damages.

Repairing the collapsed hillside could take precedent over other projects if the airport authority ever comes into money, Hall said.

“Repair of the slide areas is my number one priority. That is my number one concern, to stabilize those slide areas,” Hall said. “We really do want to be good neighbors.”

The North Carolina Geological Survey made recommendations of how to stabilize the slope. Hall said the airport authority would like to implement those recommendations.

“We would look at that in conjunction with any improvements pursued at the airport,” Hall said.

Jackson County was also named as a party in the lawsuit, but the county claims it is not responsible for the airport. The county claims the airport authority, a separate entity, has sole jurisdiction over the airport.

 

New era

In terms of providing funding for the airport — and allowing the airport to claim its $600,000 in FAA grant money — it is unclear what county commissioners plan to do. County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said he doesn’t want to see the airport go bankrupt.

“The board is interested in making sure we keep what we’ve got with the airport,” McMahan said. “In the future I am not going to rule out the possibility that we will help them with matching funds for grants.”

Several years ago, however, the county stopped making financial contributions to run and keep up the airport. Some commissioners questioned whether public funds should go toward an airport which is used by a relatively minute segment of the population that own private planes.

But there was also a major political falling out with the airport authority. Although the county had transferred the airport property to the authority, it still wanted a semblance of control over the facility’s future. That meant control over the airport authority, or at least over who served on it. Commissioners appointed the members who served on the authority but were limited in their choices. When a seat was up for appointment, the airport authority gave commissioners two names to choose from. Commissioners had to chose one of those two names, according to the airport authority by-laws.

“The county’s position was that that arrangement simply creates a self-perpetuating authority or board,” Westmoreland said.

So Jackson County officials sought new state legislation in Raleigh that would alter the way appointments to the airport authority are made. The legislation passed this year. The county commissioners can now appoint whomever they want and are not limited to the airport authority’s list.

McMahan said the county feels much more comfortable with that arrangement, which could open the door for funding to be restored, but conceded the airport in general has been a “nightmare” for county officials.

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