Gwinnett County Commissioners Charlotte Nash and Mike Beaudreau listen to Brett Smith, the CEO of Propeller Airports, during the Board of Commissioners meeting at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville. Commissioners rejected Propeller's proposal to add commercial flights at the Gwinnett County Airport.
LAWRENCEVILLE — Lawrenceville’s Briscoe Field will remain a small field for general aviation flights, after commissioners Tuesday unanimously rejected a move to add scheduled flights.
“Citizens, you made a difference,” said community leader Gaye McNeill. “We never lost sight of our goal.”
The controversy, which has divided the county for three years, causing angst especially in the surrounding community, ended after a county transportation staff recommendation against allowing a private business to take over, making a $110 million investment to the airport. Officials said the promise of a minimum annual payment of $500,000, as well as an unvalidated increase in sales tax, did not justify waiving ad valorem taxes for the upgrades and needed roadway improvements for which the county would be responsible. The financial details of the proposal, officials said, were lacking, giving the proposal only a 51 percent score out of 100.
A month ago, a citizens review group also recommended the county retain control and stop the proposed scheduled service.
Not only was the specific proposal rejected but commissioners also voted Tuesday to withdraw its application to a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program on privatization.
“I’m just happy with the way the vote came out. I’m pleased we are at this point,” said Chairwoman Charlotte Nash. “That gets one very divisive issue to the side.”
After last week’s resignation of Commissioner Shirley Lasseter, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges, proponents of the move had called for commissioners to delay the decision and allow the public to vote on the matter.
“We’re exploring our options,” referring to a possible lawsuit, said Brett Smith of Propeller Airports, which proposed adding scheduled flights at the Gwinnett County Airport. “I think the bulk of the county has been less than genuine and quite frankly outrageous.”
Attorney Doug Dillard added, “the staff report is irresponsible and unresponsive. We want a decision on the merits.”
While a U.S. attorney said in court last week that Lasseter’s vote on the airport issue was “for sale,” Smith denied ever offering a bribe. “I’m as shocked as you are, and we have done nothing wrong,” Smith said.
While the company has said it wants to add limited commercial flights, Propeller’s specific proposal was never viewed by the public, per county purchasing requirements. It was released shortly after Tuesday’s decision.
Smith and Dillard said the procedure made it impossible for the public to fully vet the idea.
But Commissioners Lynette Howard and Mike Beaudreau, who voted last year, along with Lasseter, to pursue the proposal process, said officials were given the opportunity to make an informed decision.
They said their votes Tuesday did not reflect a change in opinion on the value of privatization but rather the months of debate and evaluation allowed them to formulate their minds with the needed facts.
“I just said it needs to go through completely in a scientific process. We had to know the answers,” Howard said.
“What was submitted was clearly not going to be good for the county,” Beaudreau added.
The decision brought applause from a group of hundreds of citizens who have turned out to the courthouse for months, wearing red shirts to protest the plan, based on purported noise, pollution and quality of life issues.
“We love our community, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for making the vote that will let our community go on,” Catherine Gilley told commissioners after the vote.
But Jim Regan of the grassroots group Citizens for a Better Gwinnett said his group would remain vigilant.
“This thing could come up at any time after the election,” Regan said, pointing to a Nov. 6 special election to fill Lasseter’s unexpired term.