Dauphin Island: Honesty, Integrity, Transparency
Virginia, will you please tell me where you stand on the “Airport Issue?”
I presume you are referring to the use of eminent domain that permitted Mobile County to force five residents out of their homes and three other lot owners to sell their property.
Please bear in mind that I do not have access to the same information as Mayor Collier and the Town Council members. Thus, my opinion on this matter is based on the information that I have available to me, including Press-Register articles. The facts as I understand them to be are:
1. Mobile County owns the airport, not the Town of Dauphin Island.
2. The airport is NOT a source of revenue for the Town of Dauphin Island.
3. According to the FAA, for the 12-month period ending April 8, 2009, the airport had 3,650 aircraft operations, an average of 10 per day. Many of those flights involved helicopters which made stops at the airport in connection with the offshore oil and gas operations. As you know, helicopter traffic does not require the full runway length for approach, landing, and takeoff as needed by fixed-wing aircraft.
4. The Alabama Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division requires a Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) around the runways of airports, a policy strongly encouraged by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The purpose of a RPZ is to preserve the safety of those who use the airport and the people who live near it. The State conducted a survey in 2001 of the 78 general aviation airports across Alabama. The survey found that around two-thirds of these small airports, including Dauphin Island, did not meet State licensing requirements, mostly because of a lack of RPZs.
Mobile County officials are reported to have said that it was necessary to use eminent domain to purchase the eight properties in order to comply with FAA guidelines. Failure to do so, they said, could put future grant money at risk, and would likely force the County to pay back previously obtained grant money — $2,920,079 since 2006. With that much money at stake, the Press-Register reported County officials said they had no choice but to buy up the private property to create the RPZ. However, when pressed, officials from the FAA said that was not technically true and that while the FAA encouraged airport owners to obtain control of RPZs, the FAA cannot compel them to do so.
FAA sources were also reported to have said that had Mobile County declined to enforce the Dauphin Island RPZ, it would not have had to pay back previously received grant money, nor would it have lost access to future FAA grant money. The Press-Register did report that even if the FAA could not have forced Mobile County to purchase the properties the County could have faced sanctions from the State. Those sanctions could have included revocation of the airport’s State license. However, apparently neither Mobile County nor the Town of Dauphin Island ever questioned the State about whether sanctions would in fact be placed on the airport if the RPZ was not provided. Instead, purchase of the eight properties by eminent domain was pursued.
The bottom line is that we have no true idea to what extent our elected Town and County officials actually went to avoid the eminent domain acquisitions and the disruption of the effected property owners lives and investments.
However, we do know that the entire RPZ project was NOT executed in an open and transparent fashion. Unfortunately, the first notice that the affected eight property owners were provided about the project was the letters they received from Mobile County informing them that their property would be acquired to create the RPZ. When the condemnation proceedings were first commenced, the Dauphin Island Town Council held a community meeting and issued a letter asking the Mobile County Commission to do whatever is possible to avoid using eminent domain. That meeting represented the first time the entire RPZ issue was addressed in a public forum. The Mobile County Commission did not honor the Town Council’s request and instead continued with the condemnation efforts.
I am a strong proponent of private property rights, and if a government entity has plans to use eminent domain to take private property from a citizen, there MUST be a darn good reason, with all alternatives having been first exhausted. In my view, based on Dauphin Island Airport’s +50 years of operation without an incident and its current level and type of use I do not think eminent domain, as it was applied in this case, demonstrated a good reason for its use.
Based on the above information, I would have instructed the Mobile County Commission to shut down the airport and preserve the homes and private property rights of those involved. Had the County refused, I would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the property owners to make sure all options had been thoroughly investigated and fought via every legal channel available to protect their rights.
I hope I have answered your question. Please do not hesitate to contact me again.