The facility’s operating board last week voted to pay almost $300,000 for the assessment, which could take up to nine months to complete. Federal funds will cover most of the cost, though Paulding County Airport Authority’s contribution will be almost $15,000.
Airport Director Blake Swafford told authority members last week the study for which it was paying was extremely detailed.
“There has been a massive amount of input put into this scope of this [assessment].”
“I’ve been doing [assessments] … for almost 20 years and I’ve never seen a scope this thorough on a roadway project or a sewer project or an airport project, or any type of project,” said Swafford, who formerly served as Paulding’s transportation director.
The new study was ordered after a group of Paulding residents maintained the agency’s environmental review done before a plan for commercial service was made public in October 2013 did not take into account the potential impact of such service.
Residents asked a federal appeals court in November to declare the FAA’s September approval of planned taxiway and runway safety area projects to be illegal.
The agency and the Paulding residents later agreed to a settlement which ended the lawsuit but required the agency to conduct the new assessment.
Swafford said county, state and aviation administration officials spent “several months” compiling a document that was estimated to cost about $150,000 and included the specific environmental parts of the airport area to be studied.
They then advertised the document in the Federal Register, which includes public notices of federal agencies, and a 30-day comment period produced more than 100 submissions, Swafford said
He said comments and questions contained in large documents – many from commercialization opponents’ attorneys with Washington, D.C., law firm Sidley Austin and its Gwinnett County-based consultants Nutter and Associates – helped double the cost, he said.
“The scope of this [environmental assessment] has expanded to nearly twice the size it started at,” he said.
Sue Wilkins, who was part of the group filing the lawsuit, said after last week’s meeting the assessment’s price tag did not surprise her because the agreement called for a 10-year projection of commercialization impacts on the environment around the rural west Paulding facility.
“I’m happy the airport is being as realistic about the price as they are,” she said.
The engineering firm Michael Baker International will do the assessment, which will take between six and nine months to complete.
Baker’s involvement brought criticism to Swafford and the authority earlier this year.
Wilkins and other commercialization opponents asked the FAA to remove Baker from the study. They maintained it could not be unbiased because Baker already was a longtime consultant to its operating board and had a direct financial interest in the airport’s expansion for commercial service.
Swafford also worked for a company in the late 1990s that Baker later bought, they said.
However, Swafford said the authority hired Baker in 2010 on a five-year consulting contract that included environmental assessments among its requirements.
“Michael Baker is extremely qualified to do this. They do environmental assessments at airports all over Georgia and [the] eastern side of the United States,” he said.