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Holding pattern: Mixed reactions leave airport proposal up in the air

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett's big airport debate shows traces of the county's tax controversy.

While the airport discussion has spanned decades, it, like the tax increase, is facing a more mixed audience than in the first blast.

In the early 1990s, a proposal to begin commercial flights at Briscoe Field brought thunderous reaction from residents. But a privitaziation proposal released last week is gaining support, even as neighbors prepare to fight the plan.

"This is a potential for a huge economic development tool, but there is the not-in-my-backyard piece," Mark Tibbetts said at an Engage Gwinnett meeting Thursday.

The committee decided not to issue its own opinion on the proposal, as the county airport is currently self-sufficient, funding its operations through rental fees and fuel taxes.

But plenty of others have weighed in on the idea, where Propeller Investments wants to either buy or lease the land and allow for a commercial flights.

Propeller's Brett Smith has pitched the idea of an airport with 10 gates with possible connections from New York to Dallas, Miami and Las Vegas. And he said there are few drawbacks.

The aircraft, much larger than the small corporate jets and single-engine planes that now call Briscoe Field home, will range from 37 to 162 seats. But he said the planes are less noisy than the current ones.

And he said traffic would not increase tremendously -- only about four additional flights an hour from the current average of 14.

The runway would be expanded, but he said government regulations on safety would remain in place.

Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman who works with FreedomWorks and has been critical of county officials for the recent tax increase, stood before commissioners Tuesday to ask them to move quickly on the idea.

"I honestly believe it will provide relief to the taxpayers," she said, adding that it would reverse a nationwide trend of government getting involved in business and give an avenue for aesthetic improvements of the airport.

"It's a great opportunity for the citizens of Gwinnett County," she said.

Vinson Wall doesn't buy that.

A former state representative from Lawrenceville, Wall said he is often disturbed by noisy jets, and he can't imagine home values would go anywhere but down, despite Smith's claim of the opposite.

There are new schools being built nearby, and he pointed out that the hospital's new tower is in the airport's flight path. After a recent tragedy where a plane crashed into a Lawrenceville house, where a woman inside died, Wall said bringing bigger aircraft to the area isn't a good idea.

"Lawrenceville doesn't want it," he said, adding that he successfully pushed for the commercialization idea to fail nearly two decades ago, and he plans to work to defeat this proposal too.

"It brought back so many memories of the battle we had before," Wall said of the new overture. "I don't think people have changed their minds."

Smith thinks they have.

With a local political firm, he conducted a poll of 531 registered voters in February. The results showed 82 percent favored privatization, including 66 percent in the commission district where the airport is located.

Commissioners have pointed out that Smith's plan is much less drastic a change than the earlier proposal. They have said they are in the early stages of a federal grant process to consider the idea, and public input would be a part of that process.

"It's an intriguing idea that could bring in much-needed revenue for the county," Chairman Charles Bannister said in a press release announcing the possibility of privatization last month. "But before we can seriously talk to any potential buyers or lease holders, we must first thoroughly investigate and study the potential economic and environmental impacts."