A 600-foot extension of Macon County’s airport runway is scheduled for completion by mid-May and plans for a ribbon-cutting ceremony are in the works, Miles Gregory, chairman of the airport authority, told local leaders last week.

The $4.5 million project will allow larger corporate jets to land in Macon County. When finished, the runway will be 5,000-feet long, and include a 300-foot grass safety area. About $1 million was spent meeting archaeological requirements for using the site, Gregory said.

Two years ago, the runway extension provoked bitter opposition, with standing-room-only crowds attending meetings and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project. An archaeological assessment in 2000 had revealed about 400 Indian burials.

Macon County reached agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, and the project was able to move forward.

The extension was opposed by nearby residents who fear the additional traffic at the airport will threaten the rural valley, but commissioners supported the project for its economic development potential.

“Planes that could not land here and be covered on their insurance now will be covered,” said Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

New airport hangars are also in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a well right now,” Gregory said. “If we had a fire out here, we’d be in trouble.”

Bringing Franklin town water into Iotla Valley where the airport is located also would benefit the future elementary school near there. Insurance coverage for both the school and the airport would cost less as a result, Gregory said.

Macon County Airport Authority members are confident their application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward, but the project may still face significant procedural hurdles.

The airport is planning a 600-foot extension of its runway. In order to re-route a creek in its path, it needs approval from the Army Corp to impact five acres of wetlands and 800 linear feet of stream. The airport authority applied for a permit last fall, but in early January, Army Corp regulatory specialist Lori Beckwith put the project on hold.

At an airport authority meeting last week (Feb. 23), the project’s engineer, Eric Rysdon of W.K. Dickson, said he had addressed the concerns posed by the Army Corps.

Beckwith’s letter informed the authority that its permit application could not be reviewed because it failed to address a number of concerns raised by everyone from federal agencies to private citizens concerned about its impact. The letter also said the Environmental Assessment included in the application was out of date and that the information provided was “inadequate for us to evaluate the proposed project” and assess its impacts.

The authority was given 30 days to respond. In the letter, Beckwith emphasized the volume of public comment that had poured in — 37 letters and emails, most of them against the runway extension. She also stressed the importance of responding specifically to concerns raised by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

While the authority said last week that it had responded to Beckwith’s concerns with a report prepared by Rysdon, the report itself was not been made available for public review.

The authority’s attorney, Franklin Mayor Joe Collins, released a statement saying the report would remain private until Beckwith returns from personal leave on March 9.

“The Authority feels it inappropriate to make public the report until such time as Ms. Beckwith has had the opportunity to review it. The report is very positive and favorable to the project, and the Authority is anxious for its public release at the earliest appropriate time,” Collins’ letter read.

The future of the runway extension project hinges on the Army Corp allowing the airport to re-route the stream.

Under the Clean Water Act, a project must show that it is choosing the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

Beckwith’s letter asked the Macon County Airport Authority to address all the concerns expressed by entities opposed to the project, but she also asked for a clarification of the project’s purpose.

“In addition to responding to the comments detailed in this letter, please describe any off-site alternatives you considered and explain why these are or are not practicable and clarify the applicant’s main purpose for the project (safety or economic development) and any secondary purpose,” the letter stated.

The airport authority has received heavy criticism for the way it has shared information about the runway expansion project with the public.

Olga Pader, a member of the Save Iotla Valley group, has been an outspoken critic of the project and sees Beckwith’s concerns as a justification of the criticism expressed by the Iotla community.

“What’s interesting to me is the questions the Army Corps of Engineers were asking are similar to the questions we as citizens have been asking all along,” Pader said.

Pader believes the underlying motivation for the runway extension is a misguided economic development program that would adversely affect the Iotla Valley.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s expressed concerns that “multiple federally threatened and endangered species and federally designated critical habitats” downstream of the project could be affected. Meanwhile, the Cherokee voiced concern that the impacts to the ancestral graves and the presence of a historic Cherokee trading path were not properly evaluated.

Should the permit get rejected, the runway project may need to pursue an Environmental Impact Study, a much longer procedural process that could involve more federal oversight and public hearing requirements as it moves forward.

The Jackson County commissioners have breathed new life into the county’s airport authority by taking it over.

After appointing themselves to five of the six seats on the airport board last month, the commissioners met in their new capacity for the first time this week and began their work of running the airport. They voted to tap $150,000 in federal funds to fix the Jackson County Airport’s failed runway lighting system — a move that required a $16,500 matching grant on the part of the county, despite previous resistance by commissioners to plow tax money into the airport.

Taken together, the actions represent a new relationship between the county and the airport and may revitalize what had been a decaying piece of infrastructure. Jason Kimenker, the sole survivor from the last airport authority, saw the New Year’s first meeting in a positive light.

“I’d been waiting for a long time for the county commissioners to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the appointment of the authority’s members to make sure the airport was managed and maintained properly,” Kimenker said. “What happened today was a pleasant surprise.”

Still, the new arrangement is bound to pose its own challenges. In the first place, confusion over wording in the airport’s charter language led to questions about whether the authority should consist of a five- or six-person board. After determining that the most recent version of the charter stipulates a five-person board, Commissioner William Shelton offered to resign his seat.

That leaves the four other commissioners and Kimenker on a board that has the job of functioning as an independent entity, which means the commissioners must wear two hats.

On Monday, the authority approved bids for the runway lights, went over a list of other needed repairs and standing issues, then adjourned. The commissioners then donned their county board hats and voted to authorize the matching grant of $16,750 from the county’s contingency fund to land the federal grant money.

County Chairman Brian McMahan, who was elected chairman of the airport authority on Monday night, stressed that the commissioners would spend much of the next three months learning the airport’s business and determining the best way for the authority to move its agenda forward.

Commissioner Tom Massie, who had been an outspoken critic of the county’s allocation of money to the airport, was clear about the reason he wanted to take over the authority, pointing out the series of issues that had ended up in the county board’s lap over the past few years.

“If we’re going to have to face those things anyway, we may as well be on the airport authority and make sure it works and it’s safe for the public,” Massie said.

But the airport authority had languished for the past two years as a result of outstanding debts, a lack of county support, and a dwindling board. Monday’s meeting showed that the period had yielded a new string of issues. The lighting system failure, an inoperable fuel tank, lack of a routine maintenance plan, even concerns over the cost of toilet paper, and unresolved legal disputes with nearby landowners about erosion from the airport.

Massie wasn’t happy with much of what he heard.

“I was disappointed because I thought some of these issues had been resolved, particularly with regard to the lawsuits,” Massie said.

A large contingent of pilots turned out for the meeting, including former authority member John Glenn, a flight instructor. Glenn is pleased with the commissioners’ willingness to take on a leadership role at the airport.

“The airport is part of the county infrastructure. You can’t be separate from and part of the county at the same time,” Glenn said. “We’ve been little by little trying to turn the airport back into the county fold. It’s a good move. They’ll have to walk a mile in our moccasins now.”

Kimenker has enjoyed a peculiar transition, having woken up one morning to find himself sitting alone amongst the county commissioners.

“It’s interesting,” Kimenker said. “Now we have all the county’s concerns in the same room and that’s a good thing.”

Facing a moribund governing body and a facility once again in need of expensive repairs, the Jackson County board of commissioners did what it’s been unwilling to do in the past –– assume management of the airport.

The commissioners totally overhauled the Jackson County Airport Authority by appointing themselves to five vacant seats on its board and bringing the governing body up to its full complement.

The move ends a long-running power struggle between an airport authority that largely represented the interests of the local flying community and a county board that had grown weary of contributing tax dollars to a tiny aviation field plagued by problems.

The county has twice attempted to ratchet up its control over the airport in recent years. The authority once functioned as an autonomous body, but county leaders grew displeased with it in 2005 and attempted to remove and reappoint some of its members. The county was sued for overstepping its bounds, however.

In a second move to exert influence, commissioners got a special bill passed by the state legislature that changed the airport authority’s bylaws and gave the county control over its appointments. The authority has since been plagued by vacant seats, however, as the county commissioners failed to make timely appointments.

The latest move is the ultimate step, giving the commissioners full control of the airport’s future — including its finances, a major sticking point for the county.

While the vote settled the fate of the airport’s governing body, it didn’t represent a unified voice about the airport’s mission in the future.

Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner William Shelton, the lone dissenter in the 4 to 1 vote, both indicated that they believe it is the county’s responsibility to maintain the airport and indicated they would be willing to contribute money to help make the airport self-sufficient.

“The airport is here, and I believe it’s something we have to deal with,” McMahan said.

Commissioners Tom Massie and Joe Cowan reiterated their positions that while they supported keeping the airport safe for the public, they did not support any expansion of the airport in the future.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland offered the board a number of improvement scenarios that could help the airport move toward self-sufficiency. The construction of T-hangars, which could be rented to pilots to park their planes, would provide a steady source of revenue, while widening the airport’s runway could bump the airport into a new FAA tier and help leverage more state and federal dollars.

Massie and Cowan said they would not vote to spend county money on those improvements, however.

The airport is currently saddled with a failed lighting system that will cost $150,000 to fix. Planes cannot use the airport after dark, effectively making the airport useless as a site for emergency landings, for example.

The county qualifies for grant money that will pay for those repairs if it’s willing to contribute $16,667 of local matching funds in return for the $134,000 of state and federal grant money.

The commissioners will take up the issue of funding the lighting repairs at their first meeting in January. That will likely be the first in a series of debates about how to get the most of the county’s investment in the facility.

Cowan was adamant that the county not pour more money into the airport.

“If we go with the lights, we’re encouraging people to land at night, and I don’t want to encourage that,” Cowan said.

An unstable past

Located atop a nearly 3,000-foot mountain in Cullowhee, the Jackson County Airport was built to avoid the low-lying fog that often shrouds the Tuckasegee River Valley. Its unique location provides pilots with an alternative landing strip to lower lying airports like Macon County’s.

However, as a result of its location on a flattened mountaintop, the airport has had to continually deal with issues relating to erosion and runoff. Shortly after its completion in 1976, a landslide forced the closure of approximately 500 feet of the runway. The slide progressively worsened until a repaving project finally restored the runway to 3,003 feet.

In 1990, a storm destroyed the two-story terminal building as it was awaiting renovation. But perhaps the most damning blow came in 2005, when the airport’s inability to cope with a heavy rainstorm resulted in a lawsuit by neighbors on the receiving end of a small landslide.

While commissioners had grown weary of supporting the airport, the county responded to the lawsuit by giving the airport $65,000 in 2007 that triggered the release of approximately $600,000, or four years’ worth, of federal matching grants. The airport authority hired engineers to study the site and make a recommendation.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who sits on the airport authority, said the study showed the site was structurally sound but incapable of dealing with heavy rain.

“What was determined was the airport proper is stable, but the problem was it could not handle a major rain event properly. It simply cascaded down the mountain and affected local property owners,” Westmoreland said.

The airport authority subsequently used approximately $500,000 to create a detention pond system capable of handling major rain events and also to upgrade the airport’s communication and approach lighting systems.

The Jackson County airport has reached a crossroads.

For years the little aviation field above the clouds has been a financial burden on the county. Now, with its governing body dwindling in number and its revenues lagging behind its operating costs, the board of commissioners has to decide whether to invest in its expansion or put a lid on it.

For County Commissioner Tom Massie, the decision is pretty clear.

“The airport has been somewhat of a millstone around the board’s neck since the 1970s,” Massie said. “A lot of people in Jackson County don’t even think we need an airport.”

Massie and fellow Commissioner Joe Cowan see the airport as a county service that is more a luxury than necessity.

“Just to cut to the chase, a lot of people have felt from the beginning with the airport that it really couldn’t be justified in terms of taxpayer dollars when less than 1 percent of the people in the county use it,” Cowan said.

But defenders of the airport argue that it’s fallen victim to local politics and bad luck, and that it offers more than just a luxury playground for handful of private plane owners.

Jim Rowell, a local pilot who sat on the airport authority before being removed and reinstated in 2005, believes the board is punishing the airport for what amounts to political grievances.

Rowell said the airport is an important piece of infrastructure that the county can maintain without a huge investment, thanks to state and federal matching grants. Essentially, the county is eligible for $150,000 of matching grants each year in return for an annual investment of just under $17,000.

“If you want to know the value of an airport to a county, talk to a county that doesn’t have one,” Rowell said. “I don’t understand the mentality of county commissioners who will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits they know they can’t win, give large raises to their highest paid employees when they can’t afford it, and they can’t come up with $17,000 for the airport.”

But the argument over the airport’s future is not just about money. It’s about whether the county can forgive its past.

 

Economic development or financial drain

In 2005, a major rainstorm became the airport’s latest calamity. It cost the county more than $60,000 in legal fees to beat a lawsuit brought by neighboring property owners whose land was inundated with mud and runoff from the airport.

The county eventually won its lawsuit, but the fallout and expenses are still on the minds of the commissioners, who see the airport as a drain on the budget and not as an engine of economic development.

“We’ve virtually been in lawsuits from day one,” said Massie. “Whatever it’s generated we’ve probably paid out to lawyers. I don’t believe anyone can point to concrete proof that it has created economic development.”

Bill Austin, a local pilot who has been heavily involved with the airport authority, said the airport has both direct and indirect economic development benefits, basically because it offers a way for businesses and property owners to find Jackson County.

Austin relocated to the area after his retirement from the military because of its airport, he said.

“I knew nothing about Jackson County when I bought my first piece of property here,” Austin said. “I saw the airport on the chart. I flew in and said ‘This is it’.”

Austin believes the airport has played a role in bringing in high-profile national corporations like Wal-Mart, because their site development scouts had an easy way into the county. Austin has seen executives with Harrah’s Casino fly in and out of the airport, more anecdotal proof of its importance to the region.

Rowell doesn’t understand how a regional airport that carries the county’s name could be such a low priority for its commissioners.

“This is the Jackson County airport,” said Rowell. “One way or another you’ve got to put some money into it. The airport is working hard to make itself a viable entity and all they need is matching money.”

The ongoing struggle between the airport authority and the county commissioners over the $17,000 required to release the federal matching grants has come to a head.

Board members like Cowan and Massie argue that the airport should generate its own revenue to meet the match. Rowell and Austin argue they would already be self-sufficient if not for the landslide following heavy rains and the county’s stinginess.

 

The power struggle

The current airport authority’s chairman, Greg Hall, announced recently that he was stepping down from his position at the end of the year. The airport board was already operating with just three of the five members it is supposed to have, due to failure by the county commissioners to appoint the additional members.

Hall’s departure will leave only the board with just two members –– County Manager Ken Westmoreland and Sylva business owner Jason Kimenker.

Kimenker appeared at the board’s meeting last week to urge them to appoint new members to the authority.

“I am here to make it pretty clear that we are having trouble at the airport with only three out of the five people were are supposed to have,” Kimenker said. “As of January 2010, we will have only two members. I would appreciate it so much if the county commissioners could have appointments made appropriately so we can run the airport as we have been tasked to do so.”

The airport authority is a state-sanctioned governing body independent of the county. Its original charter set it up as a self-promulgating board with the power to name replacements when a member stepped down.

The county board, unhappy with its lack of oversight, took over the role of appointing airport members in 2007, a move that required special state legislation setting up the new power structure.

Under the new setup, the authority recommends its picks for the board, but ultimately, the commissioners can appoint whoever they want.

Rowell said the board has stood by and watched as the authority’s numbers have dwindled, however.

“Three times the airport authority has submitted names to the (commissioners), and they’ve not chose either of the names nor have they brought forward anyone else,” Rowell said.

At a time when the airport is in need of open, honest discussion, Rowell believes the board is circling its wagons.

“The trouble now is you don’t have the pilots and the public and the commissioners and all the stakeholders sitting down to say what are we going to do with this thing?” said Rowell. “But that’s exactly what we were doing a few years ago.”

The county board and the airport authority worked closely together at one point, working out a 10-year plan and setting aside money from N.C. Department of Transportation grants for the potential construction of revenue-generating “T-hangars,” which are essentially personal parking spaces for private aircraft.

In 2005, the relationship between the commissioners and the airport authority fell apart when the commissioners removed two members — its chair Tom McClure and Rowell.

Rowell said the political struggle that resulted in his removal was merely fallout from a separate controversy over the Economic Development Committee, which McClure chaired as well. The county decided McClure was doing a poor job heading up economic development, and in the process of removing him from that post unseated him from the airport authority for good measure.

Rowell and McClure sued the county over their removal and won. Rowell believes bad feelings from that power struggle have made certain board members opposed to the airport’s best interests.

 

Where to go from here?

Earlier this month, Cowan said the board needed to revisit the issue of the airport and come up with a mission for the airport authority before appointing replacement members. He said the commissioners would take up the issue at a workshop in December.

The decision facing the commissioners is essentially what to do with an airport they don’t want to run. Because of commitments attached to federal matching grants, the county can’t shut its airport down without paying back nearly a million dollars.

The airport authority has urged the board to release its last two years of matching grant funding. According to Westmoreland, the authority has the potential to tap into as much as $300,000 in grant money currently on the table — essentially two years worth of federal allocations — if the county is willing to put up a 10 percent match.

Coupled with existing money in the airport’s reserves, the grants could fund construction of eight T-hangars at a total cost of $424,000. The airport has more than 50 people on a waiting list for permanent hangars for their private planes. Austin said the hangars would generate about $24,000 per year of revenue to supplant operating costs at the airport.

Meanwhile N.C. DOT and the FAA have indicated they would supply grant money to give the airport a GPS approach system if the airport would widen its runway by 10 feet, a project that would cost around the same amount as the hangars.

“The authority is going to have to make a decision which way it goes first,” Westmoreland said. “We don’t have the money to do both at once.”

Massie, though, said the board is not in the mood to spend any more money on the airport besides what is required to protect the public.

“We will do what is necessary to make sure the flying public is safe and the citizens of Jackson County are safe, but I don’t think our board is going to participate in any kind of expansion of those facilities,” Massie said.

Commissioner William Shelton said he is also against any expansion of the airport. He believes the airport is useful to the county on some level, but he is concerned that it has become a drain on the budget.

“Anytime you can spend $16,000 to get $150,000, that is hard to pass up,” Shelton said of the grant. “But it is still tax dollars so you have to justify it to the taxpayer. So how do you justify it?”

Austin rejects that reasoning.

“$16,000 a year out of a $61 million budget? Is there really such a drain on the taxpayer?” Austin said.

A major sticking point in the argument is that for a long time the airport authority has talked about becoming a self-sufficient entity, capable of covering its operating costs and supplying the money to obtain matching grants, but that goal has yet to materialize.

Recently, the airport suffered another freak setback when its brand new lighting system was hit by a lightning strike. New lights would cost nearly $150,000.

The airport’s defenders claim that if the county releases its portion of the matching money, then the airport will be back on the road to self-sufficiency. But the commissioners say they’ve heard that line before, which is why they refused to release the matching grant last year.

Opposition to the airport runway extension in Macon County continues to mount, with a standing-room-only crowd attending last week’s Airport Authority meeting and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project.

The controversial runway project would pave over Cherokee burial grounds and artifacts. The Airport Authority has agreed to have 25 percent of the artifacts at the site excavated, but the remaining will stay in place and be threatened by the construction.

There are approximately 400 burials at the site, according to an archaeological assessment done on the site in 2000. All of the burials will remain in place at the request of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Airport Authority has been very sensitive to the Eastern Band’s concerns about artifacts and burials at the site, Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said. Excavating 25 percent of the artifacts at the site will cost $535,000. Gregory said 100 percent excavation cannot be done because it would cost around $2 million, which is more than the Airport Authority can afford.

However, Gregory announced at the meeting that the Airport Authority is now attempting to secure additional funding to do “stripping and mapping” of the entire site. He said the Eastern Band is very pleased with this.

Federal Aviation Administration Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen confirmed that the FAA will provide additional funding for the stripping and mapping, but she didn’t know how much.

Archaeologist Mike Trinkley of South Carolina, who performed the archaeological assessment in 2000, said stripping and mapping does not remove the artifacts and burials from harm’s way. It simply involves taking off the top layer of soil and documenting what is there.

“Simply mapping the site does little in resolving the loss of information,” said Trinkley. “There will be a map showing where stuff was found, but by the time construction begins the stuff will be destroyed.”

Several project opponents at the meeting asked the Airport Authority how it could justify paving over gravesites.

The artifacts are not the only reason opponents are against the runway extension. Some just want to preserve the rural character and peaceful nature of the Iotla Valley.

Many at last week’s meeting were nearby residents of the Iotla Valley and wore buttons urging that the valley be saved.

Dolly Reed of Franklin said she has Cherokee lineage and urged the Airport Authority to “let my people rest in peace.”

Resident Olga Pader said those who live in the valley have been excluded from meetings. Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins said every Airport Authority meeting has been publicly announced. But Pader noted that there was a private meeting a couple of weeks ago with state, local, federal and Eastern Band officials discussing the project.

County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who serves as the Airport Authority liaison, said that was not an official Airport Authority meeting, but was a special conference called by the Eastern Band. Kuppers said the public cannot continue to be suspicious of the county government.

“If this sort of suspicion grows we’re in trouble as a county,” said Kuppers.

A distrust of county officials will destroy the county, said Kuppers, adding that the county commissioners are more open now than they’ve ever been.

The runway extension appears to be getting personal for some, as tempers were flying at the meeting.

Lamar Marshall, with the environmental group Wild South of Asheville, said one of the Airport Authority members called him “crazy as hell” at a recent County commission meeting. Airport Authority member Harold Corbin admitted he was the one who called Marshall “crazy as hell.”

In response to the insult, Marshall wore his Crazy Horse T-shirt to the Airport Authority meeting last week. He said his group is planning a lawsuit against the Authority and others involved in the project.

Corbin became impatient with Franklin resident Selma Sparks, who was trying to speak:

“Sit down, because you’re through,” Corbin told Sparks.

However, not all those in attendance at the meeting last week were against the runway extension. Macon County resident Dwight Vinson said extending the runway 500 feet is good for the county’s economic development.

Franklin resident Norm Roberts agreed that the runway extension is needed for the county to thrive.

“This airport is essential to the economy of the area,” said Roberts.

Others also stated that the runway extension could help bring jobs to the area, but those in favor were heavily outnumbered by those against.

Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said he agreed with some of the statements made by the public and disagreed with others.

Gregory then stated, as he has numerous times in public forums since the controversy erupted about a month ago, that the runway extension has been planned for eight years and that the public has been aware of the project for that long but is just now beginning to express concern.

 

Want to be on the board?

The five-member Macon County Airport Authority is appointed by the county commissioners for six-year terms.

Terms for members Tommy Jenkins and Harold Corbin are set to expire June 30 of this year, while terms for members Gary Schmitt and Pete Haithcock don’t expire until 2011. Chairman Milles Gregory’s term doesn’t expire until 2013.

The board meets the last Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. at the Macon County Airport.

An environmental group out of Asheville plans to sue the Macon County Airport Authority and other parties involved in the proposed extension of the runway.

The group, Wild South, wants to stop the runway from being extended, saying the project is unnecessary, will harm the rural character of the Iotla Valley and endanger Cherokee artifacts and burial grounds, as well as other historic sites.

Lamar Marshall of Wild South said a 60-day notice to sue the Airport Authority will soon be filed. Afterwards, Wild South will seek an injunction to stop the project from moving forward, Wild South attorney Stephen Novak said.

Novak said he is unclear at the moment who will be named in the lawsuit.

The organization has also filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request and state public records request to obtain documents related to the proposed runway extension. The records request seeks documents from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration, the N.C. Department of Transportation Division of Aviation, the state archaeologist, and the Macon County Airport Authority.

Novak said he hopes the public records will give Wild South a better idea of who should be named in the lawsuit.

The Airport Authority will comply with the records requests, said the board’s attorney Joe Collins.

“If it’s something they’re entitled to see, we’ll certainly give it to them,” Collins said.

Reviewing all the documents associated with the runway extension will give Wild South an understanding of “who said what to whom” in regards to the runway extension, Novak said.

Marshall with Wild South said the Airport Authority is “trying to brush us off,” but it won’t work.

“We’re taking them to court,” said Marshall. “We’re going to sue them.”

The hope is that “damning” information will be found through the public records requests, said Marshall.

The Airport Authority has “definitely not followed the letter of the law,” said Marshall.

Marshall asserts that the Airport Authority and other parties violated the National Historic Preservation Act by ignoring the archaeological significance of the airport site.

Marshall also charges that the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act were violated.

He claims that endangered species in Iotla Creek and the Little Tennessee River will be endangered by runoff from the airport.

An environmental assessment found that the runway extension would have “no significant impact” on the site. But Marshall said the environmental assessment was done without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and based on out of date information.

Marshall said taxpayer money should be withdrawn from the proposed $3.5 million runway extension. The nation is facing an economic crisis, and there are better things to spend money on than extending an airport runway, said Marshall.

“Why dump money into this when it is only going to benefit rich people in Highlands?” Marshall asked.

Moreover, extending the airport runway is just laying the groundwork for more development to take place in the tranquil valley, said Marshall.

It appears an $853,000 shortfall facing the Macon County airport runway extension may be covered with additional state and federal funds.

The shortfall arose in part after a $550,000 federal grant previously earmarked for the project was pulled after the airport authority failed to use it within a four-year timeframe, said Rick Barkes with the state Department of Transportation Aviation Division. While federal money, it is administered through the state and had been diverted to another project.

The Airport Authority hoped the money would be restored, and now seems to have confirmation that will be the case. Barkes said the Macon County airport will be reimbursed the $550,000 because the delay in using the money was beyond the Airport Authority’s control. The delay stems from a significant archaeological site that lies in the path of the runway extension. The Airport Authority was trying to negotiate an agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and others over the archaeological excavation to save the artifacts from being destroyed.

Barkes said if the Airport Authority had just been sitting on the funds and doing nothing with them, it probably would not get reimbursed.

Even if the Airport Authority is reimbursed the $550,000 it will still be about $350,000 short, according to Airport Authority officials.

Barkes said the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation will likely provide the remaining funds necessary, whether they are federal or state dollars, to cover any remaining shortfall.

Barkes said the project has been in talks for about eight years and needs to be completed. There is a “very slim chance” the airport won’t get the funds it needs to cover the shortfall, said Barkes.

The remaining shortfall could possibly be covered with state Vision 100 money.

 

Priorities questioned

The total runway project, including archaeology and engineering, is expected to cost $3.5 million. Of that, almost $2 million is in state dollars, said Barkes.

Norma Ivey of Franklin, an opponent of the runway extension, questioned the budget priorities of the state to fund something like the runway extension while cutting education.

“I hate to see the money go to the airport instead of other things I see as more important. There are better investments for public money right now than a runway at the airport,” Ivey said. “Whether it is elementary school or community colleges, to not put the money in education is very short sighted.”

Same goes for county coffers. The county is contributing at least $187,000 in matching funds to make the runway extension possible, but has budget problems of its own.

“I do not see the airport as being a positive move for the county,” Ivey said.

The airport has been controversial because some, including the Eastern Band, believe there isn’t enough archaeological excavation taking place at the site. There are also Indian burials at the site, according to an archaeologist who did a survey of the property in 2000.

The Airport Authority has agreed to excavate 25 percent of the artifacts, but the Eastern Band wants all of the artifacts removed before they are erased by construction.

The burials are staying in place at the request of the Eastern Band.

— Becky Johnson contributed to this story.

Local, state and federal officials involved in the controversial Macon County Airport runway extension held a private meeting last week.

The Smoky Mountain News showed up at the meeting at the airport after being tipped off by an anonymous source.

When a reporter from the newspaper entered the boardroom, Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said it was a “private meeting.”

As the newspaper reporter waited outside for the meeting to end, County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers showed up but wouldn’t comment. Kuppers went into the boardroom.

Airport Authority attorney Joe Collins, who is also the Franklin mayor, came out of the boardroom to speak with the newspaper. Collins said the purpose of the meeting was to update the signers of a Memorandum of Agreement on the progress of archaeological excavation at the site.

He said the goal was to keep everyone informed of the situation.

Asked why the public could not also be kept informed on the progress by sitting in on the meeting, Collins said it was not a meeting the public was entitled to attend.

Collins noted that part of the MOA states that any discussion regarding burials at the site will be done in private at the request of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

Tribal Archaeologist Russell Townsend, who attended the meeting, also told the newspaper afterwards that burials were discussed and that the tribe prefers that it be kept private.

Townsend said the tribe is pleased with how archaeology is progressing but would still like more of the site excavated before the construction destroys it. He suggested that 60 percent excavation of the site may be a compromise the Tribe could agree to. The Airport Authority is doing 25 percent recovery.

Townsend also said another compromise is that the Tribe could assist Macon County in securing grants to recover 100 percent of the artifacts, but he said he has proposed that for eight years to no avail.

Others in attendance at the meeting were County Manager Jack Horton, State Archaeologist Steve Claggett, Parks Preston from the Federal Aviation Administration of Atlanta, Paul Webb with TRC Environmental — the company doing the artifact recovery, WK Dickson Project Engineer Eric Rysdon of Charlotte, FAA Environmentalist Lisa Favors, and Tyler Howe of the Cherokee Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

The officials participated in a conference call with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Collins said.

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