TRAVERSE CITY — Cherry Capital Airport is another step closer to self-governance, following a 5-1 vote by Grand Traverse County Commissioners, passing a “Notice of Intent” resolution supporting an airport authority.
“There are very few communities of our size that have regional airports and are not putting in taxpayer money to support them,” said Commissioner Addison “Sonny” Wheelock, Jr., who voted in favor.
“Continuing to tie them to the two counties to make every decision is complicated and is going to become even more of a problem,” he added. “I think it is going to be cleaner if the counties step back and allow the authority to run the airport.”
The airport is jointly owned by Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties and governed by the Northwest Regional Airport Commission, members of whom are appointed by each county. A subcommittee of the airport commission has been examining the governance issue since March of last year, recommended transitioning to an authority, though the pandemic delayed the timeline by nine months, officials said.
Under an airport authority, both county boards would continue to appoint members, Cherry Capital Airport Director Kevin Klein said, though the new body would have more autonomy.
Commissioner Bryce Hundley was the lone no vote on the resolution; Commissioner Betsy Coffia was absent.
“Having this authority impacts certainly Grand Traverse County and Traverse City in a way that — I just want it to be closer and more accountable to the elected officials,” Hundley said.
“I know the votes are there, I get that,” he added. “My hope is that 10, 15 years down the line, there will have been nothing that went wrong, and everything is great, and it’s all smooth sailing and I will just have been wrong. But I’m not convinced.”
Wheelock pointed out that Antrim and Kalkaska counties and the City of Traverse City chose not to participate in the formation of the regional airport, leaving Grand Traverse County and Leelanau County as equal partners in administering the airport.
Some members of the public previously questioned whether an authority would be responsive to residents and business owners who live and work near the airport.
“The airport is run well and Kevin has been open to communicating with us, but there are still some issues,” said Traverse City resident, Ted Iorio, a longtime critic of the transition to an authority. “When you get right down to it, an authority is a way to centralize power. It’s more difficult for the public to have the input you would want.”
An airport authority will be able to acquire debt and purchase land, through both voluntary purchase or eminent domain, without having to first seek approval from two county boards, as is required of an airport commission, records show.
There is some immediacy to that change — at their September meeting, members of the airport commission voted unanimously to offer $975,000 for the purchase of 723 Duell Road, if certain conditions are met, minutes show.
Among those are securing Federal Aviation Administration reimbursement grant funds to cover the purchase and gaining approval from Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.
In 2019, the commission purchased 718 Duell Road for $270,000 — $200,000 for the home; $30,000 for title work; $40,000 in demolition and removal costs — in a homeowner-volunteered sale.
The purchase of 723 Duell Road would also be owner-volunteered, commission minutes show.
Klein previously explained to Grand Traverse County commissioners that the FAA required a wider runway protection zone, following the August 2014 installation of a GPS Approach to North/South Runway 18/36.
The wider runway protection zone impacts at least seven additional properties and if any were to be purchased under an authority model, approval from each county’s board would not be required, Klein said.
In an Oct. 15, 2019 letter to Grand Traverse County Administrator Nate Alger, and Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik, Klein said, “It continues to be the goal of NRAC to purchase these properties within the RPZ as they become available.”
Seven properties at issue are: 495 W. South Airport Road; 501 W. South Airport Road; 745 W. South Airport Road; 724 Duell Road; 736 Duell Road; 486 W. Welch Ct.; and 487 W. Welch Ct.
Klein confirmed that once purchased by the airport, these properties would come off the tax role.
On Wednesday, commissioners were provided with a final draft of the “Articles of Incorporation” which are required by an authority model. Alger, Janik and Klein worked together on the document.
Leelanau County Commissioners have yet to pass their “Notice of Intent,” though the issue is on the agenda for their Nov. 10 meeting. The two boards did meet for a joint study session Oct. 13, in which representatives indicated their support of a transition from a commission to an authority, documents show.
Iorio said he’d suggested the Articles of Incorporation document include a requirement that an authority have a citizens advisory committee, and was disappointed to see in the final draft it did not.
“It’s not need in the Articles of Incorporation,” Klein said. “It is good business practice though, and the airport can institute it.”
Commissioner Gordie La Pointe said at Wednesday’s board meeting, that the document was a guideline and future adjustments can still be made.
“As time goes on, if the two boards determine that these Articles of Incorporation have to be modified or enhanced, it can in fact be done,” La Pointe said. “I’ve read through this, I am very comfortable with it and I think it’s the right thing to do.”
State law addresses such a transition in Public Act 95, which in 2015 amended a 1945 Michigan aeronautic law, to require the Notice of Intent and a public hearing, prior to the formation of an airport authority.
“I feel really good about our future,” Klein said, of the vote. “They have put the airport in a position to move forward and build on this model for years to come.”
The public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 2.