The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority may need money fast, but it has no business selling the only small-plane airport in Northampton County, County Council members say.
As early as Thursday, council could authorize County Executive John Stoffa to sue the Airport Authority in an attempt to block it from selling Braden Airpark.
Cash-strapped and struggling to pay off a $26 million court decision against it for taking a developer’s land in the 1990s, the authority is trying to sell assets that include the 80-acre airport in Forks Township.
Legal action to stop the sale is a move that would pit the county against the Airport Authority it helped create, but one that County Council Vice President Peg Ferraro said may be unavoidable.
“We’re pretty much unanimous in our belief that this sale must be stopped, and we believe we have every right to do it,” Ferraro said. “I know they have money problems, but selling that airport is over the line.”
Council is scheduled o vote Thursday on a resolution that would authorize Stoffa to take legal steps to block the sale. The resolution would be a request — not an order — and Stoffa said Tuesday he hasn’t decided whether he would honor it.
Airport officials argue that the authority, which also runs Lehigh Valley International Airport and Queen City Airport, is an independent governing board whose 15 members have final say on how Braden Airpark operates.
“We’ve been very clear with the county about our problems running that airport,” said Charles Everett Jr., executive director. “We’re just trying to run airport operations efficiently, and this sale is part of doing that.”
Everett said airport attorneys will evaluate whether the county has the legal right to block a sale.
Though County Council and the authority appear headed for a collision, council President John Cusick appeared to open the door, at least a crack, for a settlement. He said the county may be willing resume paying LVIA an annual stipend.
“If they need operating subsidies, I think we’d all be willing to consider that,” Cusick said. “But we’re not willing to let them close that airport.”
Suffering from plummeting passenger traffic and the remaining $13 million left on a $26 million court judgment that must be paid off by 2015, the Airport Authority has cut staff, trimmed its budget and begun to market assets it can do without.
That includes more than 700 acres of mostly vacant farmland around LVIA, where developers propose to build several warehouses and distribution centers, said Airport Authority board Chairman Tony Iannelli.
But it also includes Braden Airpark, which opened in 1938 as a private airfield and was taken over by the authority in 1999. Everett’s staff determined that the airport where 38 pilots keep their planes operates at an annual loss, largely due to $160,000 a year in debt service the authority still owes from buying it. In addition, roughly $500,000 in capital improvements are needed — all expenses the airport can’t afford, Iannelli has said.
The authority this year put Braden Airpark on the market, but in June suspended sale efforts for four months to give local pilots a chance to find a buyer who would keep it open. Pilots have met several times but have been unable to come up with a plan to meet the authority’s $3.5 million asking price.
Most recently, the pilots group asked County Council to consider buying the airport and creating a county authority to run it. That is an expense County Council isn’t willing to take on, so Cusick said council decided to move to Plan B — blocking a sale.
County Council solicitor Philip Lauer said the Airport Authority’s articles of incorporation — dating to 1945 and amended several times since — authorize the authority to “own and operate” LVIA, Queen City Airport and Braden Airpark.
The document is silent on whether LVIA can sell assets without the approval of both counties, but Lauer argues that such actions are “inconsistent” with the authority’s purpose. For that reason, any past decisions to acquire, sell or even expand airport property have been subject to the approval of both the Lehigh County commissioners and Northampton County Council, Lauer said.
In effect, County Council wants a judge to make sure the Airport Authority does not bypass that chain of command.
“We want the court to dictate that it must come through us, where it will surely be struck down,” Cusick said.
And yet, even as Cusick was clear about the big stick he believes county attorneys wield, he extended an olive branch. He said County Council might be willing to reinstate an airport subsidy to keep Braden Airpark open. The county pays an annual subsidy of $407,500 to the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority and $425,000 to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
County taxpayers once gave more than $300,000 a year to help pay Airport Authority debt. But that subsidy ended in 1995, when the airport was more financially stable and airport officials said they no longer needed it.
“There are other options available. I think we can help them,” Cusick said. “But we’ve been very clear that we will do anything in our power to stop a sale that would close [Braden Airpark].”
Iannelli said: “That’s not the direction we thought we were going, but we’re willing to listen. Maybe there’s still a chance for everyone to win.”
Both Sides Now
Why Sell Braden Airpark?
∙ The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority can’t afford to keep it running.
∙ The airport serves fewer than 60 small-plane pilots.
∙ If Braden closes, pilots can move to LVIA or Queen City Airport in Allentown.
Why block the sale of Braden Airpark?
∙ It could be bought by a developer who would close it.
∙ It’s the only airport in Northampton County.
∙ The airport adds to Forks Township’s economy.