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$300 million air park mired in controversial agreements

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Mobilization of a $300 million air park project in Hampton continues despite controversy over whether the mixed-use development will have access to an adjoining regional airport.

Earlier this month, development group, Big 5 Enterprises, LLC, broke ground on the 97-acre property, located just west of Selfridge Road in Hampton. The property, which sits within Henry County, is located on the southwest corner of the Clayton County-owned Tara Field Airport near Lower Woolsey Road.

According to Billy Abbate, managing member of Big 5 Enterprises, construction will go on for the multi-million dollar complex. Plans are to create a mixed-use development of retail shops, offices, and upscale housing that will mostly serve those who use the airport.

Those plans, however, could be stifled if Clayton County and Big 5 Enterprises do not settle on 'through-the-fence' agreements that would allow the development group easement access to the airport.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted to approve the agreements on two separate occasions, but rescinded the actions on Dec. 12, 2006.

Abbate said he believes Clayton County should adhere to its prior agreements. "Our attorneys say that they can't [restrict access]," he said. "There are certain provisions of the 'through-the-fence' agreement that we would like to see enforced."

Abbate sighted the Resolution Trust Corporation of 1993, which, he said, grants enterprises "free access in perpetuity to the airport."

However, according to Clayton County's interim director of Transportation and Development, Jeff Metarko, that may not be the case. "As far as I know, there is no standing agreement to allow access to the airport," Metarko said. "They've addressed, over the past couple of years, proposed 'through-the-fence' agreements ..."

He said Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policies played a role in the county's decision to rescind any earlier agreements.

"In a general sense, the FAA frowns upon them," Metarko added. "It's a violation of FAA's policy, if we can't meet their grant assurances. If we grant additional 'through-the-fence' agreements, we're jeopardizing having FAA not providing us anymore grant money," he said.

"They will be the major source of funding for the safety-improvement zones on the runway that's been talked about for years."

The airport receives FAA funding for its maintenance and improvements. The FAA does not oppose residential air parks at private-use airports, said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA Southern Region. However, in 2006, the FAA decided that a residential air park on, or adjacent to, a federally obligated airport, is an incompatible land use.

According to a June 2007 letter drafted by FAA Atlanta Airports District Office Manager Scott Seritt: "Permitting residential air parks on or in proximity to an airport diminishes airport safety and security due to the presence of non-resident individuals, family members, and domestic animals. [...] We also discourage airport owners from allowing 'through-the-fence' access to aeronautical enterprises associated with commercial air parks."

The letter notes that air park residents have complained about airport noise and have tried to restrain growth of airports or impose operating restrictions. Airport owners' ability to plan for and accommodate aeronautical change, growth, and increased utility has also been impacted, the letter says.

The proposed development may well limit the expansion of Tara Field Airport eastward farther into Henry County, a consequence that some officials support.

District 2 Henry County Commissioner Elizabeth "BJ" Mathis, whose district encompasses the proposed development, said she believes the proposed development would effectively bring high-end employment to Henry and deter airport growth and potential airport noise and disturbance into Henry's neighborhoods.

"The Henry County [Board of Commissioners] is adamantly opposed to expanding the runway to the east," Mathis said. "With the way this development is proposed, it will actually take the expansion westward, away from people. That was really one of the reasons we were excited about the proposal."

The developers, Big 5 Enterprises, secured land disturbance permits on June 6, and provided Clayton County notice on June 10 that it would begin grading on the project by June 16.

Last December, the Henry County Board of Commissioners rezoned the area from agricultural and residential to commercial, industrial, and residential [planned development] use. "Commercial use is compatible with the area," Mathis added. "All of that area around the race track is not suitable for residential. The condominiums would be similar in nature to corporate suites at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. We'd like to see more corporate building. We're looking to bring some higher-end employment to Henry County, and there is absolutely zero impact to our school system."

Phase I of the Big 5 Enterprises' development project will include land clearing, grubbing, and erosion control. Wet lands mitigation will also be required in the first phase of the project. The group plans to decrease the impact on the surrounding wet lands from roughly 21 acres down to about eight acres. Initial plans were to complete at least six airplane hangars by the end of the first phase.

The second phase of the project includes vertical construction, which is slated to begin a year to 18 months out from the start of Phase I. The group has already completed construction on 51,000 square feet of hanger space at the airport, and leased out a few of its lots earlier this month.

In Phase II, the group plans to build 352 luxury condominiums and more hangar space, measuring a combined 873,600 square feet. The condominiums would range in price, from $400,000 to $2 million.

"This will be a highly secure, gated community," Abbate said. "They will likely be three-level condominiums, some attached to the hangars and some free-standing."

The project also calls for more than 45,000 square feet of retail space. Abbate said the condominiums and office space would take approximately five years to sell and lease out. "We have a laundry list of folks calling about it."