October 2, 2008
St. Marys Can Move Its Airport A Judge Sides With the City, but Money May Prevent Relocation
By GORDON JACKSON
ST. MARYS - A judge has ruled the St. Marys Airport Authority has no say in relocating the city's municipal airport.
In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett said the disagreements between the city and the authority are "purely political" and the city has the right to "force a relocation of the airport" without taking the wishes of the airport authority into account.
Some members of the City Council want to again explore moving the airport 18 miles away to a site near Woodbine donated by Sea Island Co.
Although he was on the winning side, Mayor Rowland Eskridge said Scarlett's ruling does not change the voter-imposed financial constraints that make moving the airport unlikely.
In a July referendum, voters approved city officials continuing discussions on moving the airport if it does not cost taxpayers money.
"I don't see how it can be done," he said. "Anything we do now related to the airport will cost money."
Attorney Jim Stein represented the airport authority in a suit saying it, not the City Council, had final say over the airport. Stein said Scarlett's ruling did not clarify what role the authority had, if any, in relocating the municipal airport.
"We 're still left in limbo," Stein said.
During the Sept. 26 hearing, Stein said the state created the authority in 1964 to run the airport. The authority, he argued, should have the final say in the relocation issue but the City Council has excluded it from all discussions.
City officials argued the deed to the airport is in the city's name and any decision to relocate it is the council's to make.
The city and authority have been at odds on the issue since the council voted in April to reopen discussions on moving the airport. In February 2007, the council voted to abandon the relocation issue because it had made no decision after five years of discussion.
City officials say they want to relocate the airport because of concerns a plane could crash at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base about 2 miles away. The Navy supports the move because a crash on the sub base could impact operations and national security.
Authority members will discuss the ruling in a closed session during a meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall. One option is to appeal the ruling to a higher court, Stein said.
Authority Chairman Richard Russell said he is disappointed the judge didn't issue a clearer ruling.
"It appears the judge ruled not to rule," he said. "We still don't know our legal standing."
Russell questioned why the authority was created if city officials won't allow it to make a recommendation on the issue and has excluded it from all discussions.
Councilman Bill Deloughy said he agrees with the ruling. Authority members, he said, still have a say in the day to day operations of the airport.
"We need their expertise," he said.gordon.jackson@jacksonville. com, (912) 729-3672
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