By Joel Hall and Valerie Baldowski
Henry County Commissioners say they're interested in buying Tara Field Airport from Clayton County.
The Henry County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution last week to begin preliminary discussions with Clayton commissioners on purchasing the airfield, which lies within Henry County, but is owned by Clayton County and operated by Clayton's Transportation Department.
Henry County Commission Chairwoman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis said officials in Henry have been eyeing the airfield for a number of years. "There has been an interest the entire time I've been in office as a commissioner," she said.
Mathis served one term as commissioner for the district where the airport is located prior to being elected chairwoman in 2008.
She said the next step in the process will be for Henry officials to draft a letter and send it, along with a copy of the resolution, to each Clayton County Commission member, in an attempt to avoid any miscommunications. "We want the entire commission to know we want to talk to them," Mathis said.
Mathis said Henry County's interest in the buying the property is influenced by several factors, particularly a past proposal by Clayton County to extend a runway east, toward U.S. Highway 19/41. She said eastward expansion of Tara Field may lead to noise complaints and lower property values.
"We have some of the most densely-populated neighborhoods east of the proposed runway expansion," she said. "It would affect people as far as Mount Carmel Road."
Jeff Metarko, director of Clayton County's Transportation and Development department, said Tara Field was purchased several years ago using grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration. He said Clayton County and the FAA both "have a stake" in the airport, but that disagreements between Henry and Clayton over airport development have hampered Tara Field's growth.
"Tara Field is a very unique location because we own the airfield, but Henry County has zoning control over all the parcels around it," Metarko said. "We've been working for several years on trying to expand the runway for safety reasons. Before the FAA would weigh in on where they wanted it to go, they wanted to explore expanding eastward. Henry County didn't agree to that."
Metarko said that Clayton County is considering a westward expansion of the runway at Tara Field, but said negotiations with Henry have "gone back and forth." He said Clayton County would like to develop the airport, and that the development could be mutually beneficial to both counties.
"There is a master plan about expanding the airport, expanding the runway, adding more hangars, and an opportunity for new businesses to move there," Metarko said. "There is opportunity for white- and blue-collar jobs. I think both counties would want to make the operation as successful as possible."
Mathis said that the impact on area residents should be considered as part of airport expansion plans.
"Our desire would be to expand the runway to the west," she said. "There would be no impact to the people of Henry County by doing that. There's nothing over there."
Clayton County Commissioner Wole Ralph said he wasn't aware of any recent discussion between Clayton and Henry about the purchase of Tara Field. While noting the airport is a valuable asset to Clayton, he said he believes the counties can work together to bring economic development to the southern parts of both counties.
"Part of the reason why we purchased Tara Field is so that we could control its growth," Ralph said. However "any kind of economic development" would be helpful to the region, he added.
"That would just be something that both of the boards would have to iron out," Ralph said.