SUTTONS BAY — Some Leelanau County residents are afraid that if the Cherry Capital Airport changes its governance model it will begin to gobble up private land and surround itself with stores, motels and other businesses.
“I see nothing in the document so far that limits the airport’s power of eminent domain,” said Jay Johnson, of Empire. “The authority has way too much power to take public property for some very vague reasons.”
About half a dozen people spoke at a public hearing held by the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners this week.
The board is considering a move to change the airport’s governance model from a commission to an authority, which proponents say would allow it to buy and sell property.
A second public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Leelanau County Government Center in Suttons Bay.
An authority would also have zoning control, which now lies with Traverse City, and be more efficient as it could make decisions without having to go to both the Grand Traverse and Leelanau County boards for approval, according to Steven Baldwin, a management consultant hired by the airport to explore making the switch.
The airport is equally owned by Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties and is governed by the Northwestern Regional Airport Commission, of which two members are from Leelanau and five from Grand Traverse.
Gerald Schatz, of Northport, said the airport is a lifeline to the outside world, especially for Leelanau residents.
“We love Cherry Capital Airport,” Schatz said. “It functions on a human scale. It works right. We need not make it inaccessible by developing non-airport uses.”
Zoning in the airport transportation district was amended by the city in 2016 to make way for the Costco store and gas station on airport property. The amendment allows for large retail stores and a mix of other uses permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Costco leases the 18 acres the store is on from the airport for $167,000 per year under a 20-year contract with eight five-year options to renew.
Wayne Wunderlich, of Leland, said that the zoning change opened up the airport property for development of all kinds of non-aeronautic uses.
“My biggest concern has been the foisting of Costco onto airport property in 2015,” Wunderlich said. “I’m concerned about the lack of discussion with this issue with the airport, particularly in the vein of what they want to do with these properties.”
The Airport Governance Advisory Committee formed in March to look at whether the governance model should be changed.
After six meetings the committee recommended changing to an authority, with the airport commission approving the recommendation in November.
Several Leelanau commissioners have said they see no reason for the airport to change, as it functions well the way it is.
Kevin Klein, executive director of the airport, said if a change is made it won’t be for several months.
Commission Chair William Bunek was a member of the advisory committee.
“We’re not trying to pull anything over anybody’s ears,” Bunek said. “We’re trying to make the airport work better for everybody.”
If the airport does not go to an authority, a joint operating agreement needs to be changed, as it does not have a process for resolving disputes, outline minimum qualifications for board members or have a process for appointing or removing board members.
The agreement expires in 2049.
Klein said the airport could also owe the federal government money for properties that have been sold or transferred since they were originally purchased with federal grant dollars. The airport is in the process of looking through old deeds of sale and other records as the FAA wants documentation of those old transactions, Klein said.
The authority governing model has only been allowed since 2015, when Michigan amended the Airport Authority Act to allow smaller airports to form authorities. Prior to Act 95, as the amendment is known, only airports that served more than 5 million passengers per year could form an authority.
“Because of the new law the advisory committee felt it was in the best interest of the counties ... to possibly move to an authority,” said Doug DeYoung, chairman of the airport commission. “At the end of this there will still be an airport. There will still be an asset in this community which is an economic driver.”
Cherry Capital is one of two of the state’s 17 commercial airports governed by a commission. The other is MBS International Airport in Freeland.