The Georgia State Supreme Court released an opinion Monday morning in the case of Paulding County residents against the county's airport authority, challenging the expansion of the airport to allow commercial flights.
In a unanimous decision, the Georgia State Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the Paulding Airport Authority, upholding the intergovernmental agreement between the airport authority and the county.
Residents Anthony Avery and Sue Wilkins challenged the validation of a $3.6 million bond to fund the expansion of a taxiway at the Paulding County Airport. That taxiway expansion is a key element in allowing the airport commercialization to move forward, and the residents objected based on their assertion that the contract between Paulding County and the Airport Authority was an unenforceable intergovernmental agreement.
"We disagree," wrote Justice Harold Melton, on behalf of the court.
According to the court's published opinion, released Monday morning, "the expansion itself allows Paulding County to reap the benefit of commercial flight service," which includes "a safer airport and economic benefits along with new jobs."
The Paulding County airport would become the first one in metro Atlanta, outside of Hartsfield-Jackson, to offer commercial airline service. As part of a settlement from a separate lawsuit, they must first complete an environmental assessment in order to move forward on the runway expansion.
Airport Director Blake Swafford said he expects that environmental assessment to take at least six months for completion.
The full opinion reads as follows:
"The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a Paulding County court's validation of a $3.6 million bond to fund the expansion of a taxiway at the Paulding County Airport.
"The purpose of the expansion is to accommodate commercial passenger jets, and residents who opposed a second commercial airport in the metro Atlanta area had appealed the ruling on several grounds, including their contention that the contract between Paulding County and the Airport Authority was an unenforceable intergovernmental agreement.
"But in today's unanimous opinion: 'We disagree,' Justice Harold Melton writes for the court.
"According to the facts, in September 2013, the Paulding County Airport Authority authorized a bond resolution to fund the expansion of the airport's taxiway, which runs parallel to the landing strip and is used by planes to taxi to and from the terminal. Paulding County and the Airport Authority, which together own the property, planned to enter into an intergovernmental agreement to allow the joint use of the property to expand the taxiway. Under the agreement, the Authority agreed to provide and operate the airport facilities and services related to the taxiway, and the county agreed to pay the principal and interest payments on the bond. The payments were intended to serve as the bond's security. If additional funds were to become necessary to fund the county's payment obligations under the agreement, the county agreed to use its taxing power to raise the funds.
"On Oct. 9, 2013, the State of Georgia filed a petition for validation of the Series 2013 Bond and the judge ordered a hearing. The required notice of the public hearing mistakenly identified as security for the bond a contract between the county and the 'Industrial Building Authority,' rather than the Airport Authority. While the bond's validation was pending, the Authority entered into an additional agreement on Oct. 22 with Silver Comet, LLC, a private company involved in the proposed overall transformation of the airport into a regional hub for commercial flights. The parties disputed, however, Silver Comet's involvement in the taxiway expansion project.
"On Oct. 28, 2013, Anthony Avery and Susan Wilkins, residents of Paulding County, filed a motion to intervene in the case and raised five objections as to why the bond should not be validated. Some residents complained that the advent of commercial air traffic in Paulding County would destroy their tranquil rural setting. The trial court allowed the residents to intervene as parties. Following a hearing, the trial court ruled against the residents and validated the Series 2013 Bond, finding in response to their objections that 1) the bond and its security – the county's agreement to service the debt of the bond – satisfied the Intergovernmental Contracts Clause of the Georgia Constitution and the Revenue Bond Law; 2) the bond did not violate the Gratuities Clause or the Lending Clause of the Constitution; 3) notice of the validation hearing had been provided as legally required; and 4) approval of the bond resolution had been discussed and made in public meetings as required by state law. Avery and Wilkins then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"Today's opinion quotes the Georgia Constitution, which states: 'The state, or any institution, department, or other agency thereof, and any county, municipality, school district, or other political subdivision of the state may contract for any period not exceeding 50 years with each other or with any other public agency, public corporation, or public authority for joint services, for the provision of services, or for the joint or separate use of facilities or equipment….'
"The opinion states that the 'prerequisites for such an intergovernmental contract are satisfied in this case.' The agreement is between appropriate governmental entities, its term does not exceed 50 years, and it relates to the provision of services and the joint use of facilities. The Airport Authority agrees to manage the expanded taxiway, and in turn, Paulding County agrees to provide funding and manage the debt. 'In addition, the expansion itself allows Paulding County to reap the benefit of commercial flight service,' the opinion says, which includes "a safer airport and economic benefits along with new jobs."
"While the plaintiffs argue the bond issuance provides an improper benefit to Silver Comet in violation of both the Lending Clause and the Gratuities Clause of the Georgia Constitution, '[t]here is no violation of either clause,' the opinion states. 'Contrary to Avery's characterization of the facts of this case, Paulding County and the Airport Authority have not extended a gratuity to Silver Comet.'
"The high court disputes Avery's contention that the trial court erred in determining sufficient notice was given for the bond validation hearing, 'as the record supports a finding of substantial compliance.' And it disputes Avery's contention that the Airport Authority violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act by entering into an executive session on Sept. 18, 2013 to discuss the bond. 'The bond was not discussed during the executive session,' the opinion notes in a footnote."
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