Concerns that the process was moving too fast and lacked public input appear to have halted the city’s plans for creating an authority to operate and acquire a local airstrip.
At least for now.
In a statement Monday, House Speaker David Ralston said the House bill to create the Dawsonville Airport Authority through local legislation had been put on hold “for the rest of the year.”
“All of the citizens of Dawson County deserve openness and transparency in government at each level,” Ralston said. “Unfortunately, that was not the case with this request for local legislation.”
At a Feb. 16 special called meeting, the city of Dawsonville requested state approval to form the Dawsonville Airport Authority.
House Bill 453, which passed the House of Representatives in a 146 to 1 vote on March 8, was awaiting Senate approval.
That was until the measure was halted by Ralston, Rep. Amos Amerson and state Sen. Steve Gooch, all of whose districts include part of Dawson County.
In the release, Ralston said “at no time before this bill was introduced even up until now has anyone on behalf of the city of Dawsonville contacted me” about it.
“No information was given to the public or to their elected representatives,” he said. “That is not good government.”
Reached Tuesday, Ralston noted that an authority is powerful.
“I think that before you create an entity it’s incumbent on the city to lay out what their plans are and address the concerns of its residents,” he said.
Amerson, who sponsored the bill, also felt “the city needed to hold some hearings and get input. They really need to explain the economics of it.”
The city held a press conference Tuesday to announce it would in fact hold a public hearing on the matter at 7 p.m. March 31 in city hall.
According to Dana Miles, it will be the second public hearing.
“On Feb. 16, this was an agenda item, and it was discussed at the council meeting,” Miles said. “There was no comment against it or anything at that point in time.”
Mayor Joe Lane Cox said the upcoming public hearing would “give our side of what we’ve done and what our intentions were from the beginning and let people respond to it.”
“From what I’ve gathered, [the bill] is not dead yet,” he said.
Amerson agreed that the bill was indeed, not dead.
“It’s just been put on hold,” he said.
According to City Attorney Dana Miles, the purpose of the authority was to “acquire and possibly operate an airport facility in the city of Dawsonville.”
During Tuesday’s press conference, Councilman Calvin Byrd said other entities and private parties had interest in buying the Elliotts’ airport.
“That’s the reason for our concern,” he said.
“We want to educate the public on what our intentions were as the city to try and protect the citizens from a private company or another county or city coming in and controlling what lies inside of our district.”
Miles, the mayor and mayor pro-tem all have referenced an airstrip in northern Dawson County owned by Bill, Dan and Ernie Elliott. It is the only existing facility of its kind in the city limits.
In the news release, Ralston said he had spoken with Amerson and Gooch “in reaching a joint decision to halt legislation.”
The problem, Gooch said, is that “there hasn’t been any public debate on it at all that I know of.”
“People need to know what the plan is, and then if it makes sense, we might be able to go forward with it,” he said.
The plan, according to Mayor Pro-Tem James Grogan, is to potentially acquire the airstrip.
Forming an airport authority, Grogan said, would open doors for “possible growth at the Elliott facility.”
Ralston’s statement caught Grogan off guard.
“I’m surprised at how strongly it was worded,” he said.
In his remarks, Ralston explained his reasoning for public hearings on the matter.
“An authority created by the General Assembly can have great power, and this was the case with House Bill 453,” he said. “This bill would have given power to the authority to buy and sell property, borrow money and exercise the power of eminent domain to condemn private property.”
“As long as I am privileged to represent even a portion of this wonderful community, I will not support or condone a secretive, behind the scenes process that could so greatly impact the people of the county.”
Amerson and Gooch both said they were inundated by e-mails and phone calls from residents, mostly on the county’s north end, opposed to the bill.
“My phone has not stopped ringing,” Gooch said. “This basically has raised caution flags from a lot of people.
“We need to take a timeout and give everybody a chance to catch their breath.”
A representative from the Federal Aviation Administration said there had been talks with the city over the past couple of years.
“We’ve provided [the city] with information about our federal grant program and answered questions they’ve had,” said Scott Seritt, the FAA’s airport district office manager.
Cox, the mayor, has said it would be “a lease to purchase [the airstrip]. The FAA suggested that they could put grant money and seed money into it if we did the [airport] authority.”
Before anything can happen, however, the authority would have to be first approved at the state level.
In August 2008, the city rezoned the 204-acre site to light industrial complex at the Elliott family’s request.
The measure was met with complaints from nearby residents who claimed their quality of life would be compromised by increased air traffic.
The Elliotts’ property was annexed into the city in 2007.