County sued over airport upgrade records
GHENT–Two town residents have filed suit against Columbia County for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for records relating to the Columbia County Airport.
Ghent residents Michael Schrom and Kevin Delahanty filed a FOIL request for documents August 21, but according to the lawsuit, the county “failed to produce records for review at a time when they were required by law to have been produced and made available.” The records requested were any relevant to the county airport and the county’s proposal to acquire abutting property through purchase or eminent domain.
The county has been exploring the use of eminent domain to acquire property from Meadowgreens Golf Course in order to expand the airport’s runway safety zone, and county officials have suggested that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could force the county to shorten its runway if it fails to comply increase the safety zone. A shorter runway would limit the type of aircraft allowed to use the airport, the officials say.
A letter from the FAA to the county dated August 6 states that since Columbia County has accepted federal grant money for development, it “is obligated to the Federal government and must abide by the grant assurances.” The letter encourages the county to continue taking steps to acquire land to expand the safety zone as part of a Master Plan completed for the airport in 2003, and states that failure to do so “could jeopardize the ability to secure FAA funding for future projects.”
Ancram Town Supervisor Art Bassin (D) has called for more information on the issue, questioning whether the FAA would force the county to shorten the runway if the local officials decide against expanding the safety zone. But last week the Board of Supervisors defeated his resolution to table the eminent domain proceeding.
The following day Mr. Bassin issued an open letter saying that GOP supervisors “voted against getting the facts before deciding to proceed with the eminent domain process.” He also said that the issue was no longer about airport safety or eminent domain, but about “the integrity and credibility of the county’s decision making process, and the supervisors and managers who guide that process.”
Patti Matheney of citizens group GhentCANN has said she too has filed FOIL requests regarding what effect a shortened runway would have on the types aircraft allowed to use the airport, the airport’s economic impact on the county, and flight traffic, all with no success. In a letter published in The Columbia Paper this week, Ms. Matheney and Mr. Schrom say the county projects 19,200 annual flights at the County Airport by 2020. However, they write that FAA records available online from FlightAware “show only about 1,600 per year.”
On October 10, Assembly member Didi Barrett (D-106th), whose district includes Ghent, sent a letter to Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Grattan requesting that he suspend actions on expanding the airport safety zone until more information is presented and questions answered.
“The residents of Columbia County have a right to understand both the need for and the full economic implications of the proposed airport expansion,” said Ms. Barrett in a press release. “This is about accountability, fiscal responsibility, and hard-earned tax dollars; it should be a transparent process.”
Ken Dow, attorney representing Mr. Schrom and Mr. Delahanty said in an October 7 release that the county’s failure to produce the requested records “can only be the result of willful evasion or stonewalling.” He called it “regrettable when citizens must commence proceedings in the courts to extract lawful conduct from their government officials, but the long and troubling history of the County’s failure to produce and provide information has brought this on.”
County Planning and Economic Development Commissioner Ken Flood could not be reached for comment prior to press deadline.