Originally created 08/29/98

City orders plans for wetlands



Members of the Augusta Commission and the Bush Field Airport Commission, charged with trying to break an impasse caused by the city's man-made wetlands near the airport runway, met Friday behind closed doors.

An hour and 15 minutes later they directed Airport Manager Al McDill and Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver to prepare a plan to present to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The city is under a federal court order to reduce the amount of pollution going into the Savannah River from the nearby sewer plant. The wetlands are designed to cleanse the wastewater, but the FAA opposes them because they may draw more birds to the area.

Birds can be sucked into jet aircraft engines and cause planes to crash. The FAA issued an advisory in 1997 against building landfills and wetlands near airports, but the wetlands project was already well under way.

The FAA has threatened to cancel airport grants and even close the facility if it determines the birds pose a hazard.

Commissioner Bill Kuhlke made the motion to go into legal session Friday, and Commissioner J.B. Powell seconded it.

Bush Field commission chairman Edward Skinner said he saw no need to close the meeting.

"I don't know why the public shouldn't know what is going on," Mr. Skinner said. That's why there has been so much misunderstanding about the wetlands-airport dispute, he added.

City and airport commissioners met Monday for almost two hours behind closed doors. David Hudson, an attorney representing The Augusta Chronicle, said that meeting violated the state open meetings law.

Assistant City Attorney Lori D'Alessio said she and City Attorney Jim Wall both thought it was in the city and the airport commission's best interest to close Friday's meeting.

Mr. Kuhlke, Mr. Powell and airport commission member Rick Beard voted to close the meeting, while airport commission members Frank Dennis and Ret. Lt. Gen. Robert Gray voted against closing it.

After the meeting, Mr. Kuhlke said city officials need to meet with the FAA and EPA and explain the city's long-term goals.

"We don't want to hinder the airport's growth over the long term," he said. "The second thing is we've got to provide sewage treatment for this community, so we've got to take care of that to.

"And we're under a court order that by year 2001 we've got to have those constructed wetlands completed. But at the same time, we don't want to inhibit the growth and potential of the airport.

"And the thing about it under the federal court order with the EPA, and then with the federal regulations of the FAA, at some point quickly we need to get together with those two agencies and tell them what we want to try to accomplish, to work it out together.

"If you can't do that, then you risk the potential of litigation which you always want to avoid."