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Airport Authority gets flak from county council over possible sale of Braden Airpark

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Jun 06 2013 11:25:14 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 07 2013 07:29:07 AM CDT
Northampton County Council
EASTON, Pa. -

If you were looking to paraphrase the message Northampton County Council delivered Thursday night to the authority that manages Braden Airpark, it would go something like this: "Straighten up and fly right!"

Council members, along with five members of the public, spent about an hour at an economic development committee meeting giving flak to the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority over a proposal to unload Braden Airpark in Forks Township. Council members kept up the barrage for almost as long during their regular meeting.

The authority is seriously considering closing Braden and selling the airpark and other properties to help pay off an estimated $16 million judgment that ended a protracted lawsuit in 2011.

Council ultimately decided on a two-prong approach to express its dismay with the possible loss of Northampton County's only public airport.

First, a letter drafted last year strongly opposing the sale of Braden will be re-sent not only to the authority's chairman and executive director, but to each authority member from Northampton County.

Second, solicitor Philip Lauer will check if council must approve a change in the authority's charter before Braden can be sold, the way it had to approve a charter change before the authority bought Braden in 1999 for $2.4 million.

Before reaching that consensus, council member Peg Ferraro proposed a resolution asking the authority to delay action on the plan to sell Braden for a year and to meet with Forks Township officials and "people from the aviation community" to discuss the airpark's future. "Haste! Haste! Haste! Look at other options!" she urged the authority.

She also urged her fellow council members to support the resolution, even though it "is worth less than the paper in your bathroom," because authorities "answer to no one."

Council member Tom Dietrich bristled at Ferraro's resolution. "We don't want it sold at all," he said. "Your resolution gives [the authority] a chance to sit on [the plan to sell] for a year. It makes it sound like we want to negotiate or compromise. There's nothing to compromise."

Council members Ken Kraft and Robert Werner supported Dietrich's position, with Werner saying, "Our job is to step up and say, 'Don't do it.' "

Ferraro eventually withdrew her proposal.

At the economic development committee meeting, after hearing brief presentations from authority executive director Charles R. Everett Jr. and authority member J. Michael Dowd, council members proposed other ways for the authority to handle the settlement payments it must make over the next five years.

Council president John Cusick suggested the authority consider issuing 20- or 30-year bonds "to give yourself some breathing room."

Everett replied, "I've been told that's not in the cards for us."

Cusick also said the authority might want to ask the county councils of Lehigh and Northampton for some funding to help them make the payments, after Everett said the authority's operating expenses would be $47,000 will be in the red because of the payments.

"I don't mean to say $47,000 is not a lot of money, but [a deficit of] $47,000 a year in operating expenses is not a lot of money," Cusick said. "And if [Braden] is sold, it will become a strip mall and condominiums."

Robert Brown, of Palmer Township, one of the county residents who spoke against the authority's plan, said a 2008 $2.8 million grant from the Pennsylvania Aviation Bureau for improvements at Braden would have to be repaid if Braden is closed, "because they were not in use for 10 years."

He also pointed out that once Braden is closed, it could never be re-opened as an airport, because Federal Aviation Administration rules are much stricter now than when Braden was built. "It won't be grandfathered, like it is now," Brown said.

He labeled the plan to close and sell Braden "an illusionary solution" to the authority's financial problems.