Sunday, September 22, 2013

EDITORIAL: A welcome reprieve on Braden Airpark (N43) sale

Thanks to Northampton County Executive John Stoffa, some breathing room and common sense have been injected into a standoff over the proposed sale of Braden Airpark. 

Until Thursday — when Stoffa announced that he and members of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority had agreed to a six-month negotiating period — a disagreement over the future of the small airport in Forks Township was headed to land in court.

The airport authority has been looking to liquidate the 80-acre property to help pay off $16 million in court-ordered debt, the result of a lawsuit over condemnation of land around Lehigh Valley International Airport for an expansion that never occurred and is no longer needed.

We can’t fault authority members and Executive Director Charles Everett for considering drastic measures, but selling off Braden Airpark isn’t much of a relief valve. Estimates of its value range from $2 million to the authority’s reported asking price of $3.5 million. That would shave a slice off the $16 million liability, but if the authority’s deep financial woes end up requiring new subsidies from Lehigh and Northampton counties, why sacrifice a small, locally valued airport — and add to development, traffic and school enrollment pressures in Forks Township?

Preserving Braden as a general aviation facility makes sense. The authority purchased the family-owned airport in 1999 to relieve pressure on commercial traffic at LVIA. It also owns and operates Queen City Airport in Allentown.

A group of pilots who use Braden Airpark has been working on a plan to retain it — through a sale, a public-private partnership, lease or other arrangement. The group has asked Northampton County officials to consider spending $5,000 a month to keep it going until a more permanent solution can be found. County council has been cool to that idea, and even frostier to a suggestion that the county buy the airport and set up an authority to run it.

Still, county council has taken a firm stand against selling the airport for any use other than aviation. On Thursday, the council approved a resolution authorizing the executive to go to court to prevent such a sale. Council Solicitor Philip Lauer said he believes the authority’s bylaws require approval from the Lehigh County Commissioners and Northampton County Council for a sale of any airport. Everett and authority counsel believe the authority, whose members are appointed by the counties, has unilateral power to sell any of its assets.

Northampton County officials also fear that the authority might simply shut down Braden and once deactivated, put the land on the market. There’s no question the airport requires continued investment to keep it going — an annual $160,000 mortgage payment plus some capital improvements. 

Stoffa’s intervention is well-timed. The agreement to hold off until March allows the parties to work out a deal to keep Braden flying while avoiding an intergovernmental lawsuit.

“I don’t want to sue the authority. They can’t afford it. We can’t afford it. We’re in court too much already,” Stoffa told county council.

Amen to that. However, a new county executive and council will be seated when the negotiating period expires next year. If there’s no agreement by then, they should be willing to invoke the current council’s resolution to protect Braden from unwanted development.

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