Airport dispute centers on grant

Airport dispute centers on grant
Solicitor, panel disagree on policy

By Paula J. Owen TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

FITCHBURG

Airport Commissioner Kit D. Walker said airport commissioners are being portrayed as a “group of renegades” by the city solicitor in their efforts to save the city millions in potential lawsuits for needed maintenance at the airport.

In a meeting with the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month, Mr. Walker said he and other commissioners took offense when City Solicitor Michael Ciota said airport commissioners were acting like renegades. Mr. Ciota, he said, also claimed “there was growing support to close the airport.”

After that meeting with the FAA, the Finance Committee voted to hold up millions in federal grant money at the recommendation of Mr. Ciota; the funds are slated to make the airport safer.

Moving the grant assurances forward to allow the city to receive 95 percent of federal and state funding for airport improvements had already been held up for months. According to Mr. Ciota, wording in state grant assurances that the mayor is required to sign did not give the city enough control over spending at the airport and he recommended against signing them until airport commissioners signed documents agreeing to concessions.

But Mr. Walker said the language on the documents hasn’t changed since the 1970s.

“He won’t explain to us what is different,” Mr. Walker said. “He just won’t give us an answer.”

Mr. Walker said the city has accepted federal grant money that obligates it to use the airport’s 396 acres strictly for aviation-related activities for at least the next 20 years.

If the city fails to allow current grant assurances to move forward for money to shift the main runway and for routine maintenance, the city will have to shoulder the costs of safety improvements itself until 2030 or allow the airport to deteriorate further and open itself up to liability, said Mr. Walker. That is money the city or the airport doesn’t have, he said.

When reached, Mr. Ciota said he could not comment on the issue.

“I just don’t want to discuss it for public consumption,” he said. “I just feel it would be a breach from my responsibility as an attorney to my client.”

The Airport Commission also alleges the city’s refusal to move the grant assurances forward is tied to the unauthorized use of land at the airport for a wastewater treatment plant and recycling center.

The property was used without approval from the FAA, as is required under law.

In a letter dated May 20, 2008, the FAA said it found the city in non-compliance regarding use of properties at the airport during an inspection in March 2008.

Those parcels are valued at millions of dollars and legally the city is required to compensate the airport for use or sale of the land, according to the FAA.

The letter said the city had 60 days to come up with a corrective action plan, but no plan was ever submitted to the FAA.

“The land use issue is different than getting the current grants signed,” said Mr. Walker. “We need to move on.”

At the meeting this month, FAA officials gave the city until Dec. 31 to come up with a resolution for the land use issue, Mr. Walker said, and the FAA is requiring the city to pay for an independent land assessment of the properties.

“The FAA won’t tolerate any more stalling,” he said.

“They want a plan, and the Airport Commission wants to move along like we always have and apply for grants. We want to cooperate and move forward.”

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