Sewanee Airport Committee Established by County Commission

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At the July 19 meeting, the Franklin County Commission passed a resolution establishing an advisory committee to review the budget of the Franklin County/Sewanee Airport and offer recommendations in disputes. The action was prompted by neighboring Midway landowners’ objections to how the University handled the need for tree cutting to clear runway entrance and egress.

The University operates the airport; Franklin County owns the airport and must approve all grants. With the airport’s licensure and ability to apply for grants compromised due to the need for tree cutting, the University sought avigation easements from neighboring landowners. In the past, the University negotiated with the landowners to carry out the tree cutting. (See Messenger, June 25, 2021.)

Addressing the commission on July 19, University Treasurer and Vice President for Finance Doug Williams explained the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conversation recommended acquiring avigation easements since it would be “cheaper than negotiating every 10 years.” Williams said surveyors are not required by state law to obtain permission to access landowners’ property to establish easement value; only a notification letter is needed. Williams stressed, however, the University was unaware the surveyors would come on landowners’ property unannounced, a primary objection of landowners neighboring the airport.

Matt Hughes, representing Midway landowners, said Mayor David Alexander requested a 10-year operations budget from the University. The budget, received after a five-week delay, lacked much information. Williams attributed the delay to the need to review the data before releasing it. The budget did not have information on fuel sales and hanger rent because the University contracted with Elevation, Inc. to manage the airport. As part of their compensation, Elevation, Inc. received a percent of fuel sales and hanger fees. Williams said he did not know the amount, but “I will do everything I can to get the information.” The contract with Elevation, Inc. has ended and the University is seeking a new management firm.

Hughes said the Midway landowners wanted the county to require the University sign avigation easements to facilitate tree cutting on University airport property. Williams contended the purpose of easements was to avoid repeated negotiations, and “There are no repeated negotiations of the University with itself.”

“You don’t own the airport,” Commissioner Greg King said.

“We (the county) need something in writing,” Commissioner Lydia Curtis Johnson concurred.

Hughes also asked for three amendments to the resolution: one, an annual airport audit of the airport; two, transparency about future plans and growth; three, a clause stating the county can refuse to consider airport grants if budget information is not provided.

Williams said he had consulted with the University attorney and approved of the resolution as written. “It [the committee] is advisory and provides for transparency…That is a good thing.” Williams said, however, before approving the amendments, he would need to verify they were consistent with the agreement between the University and the county governing operation of the airport.

Alexander proposed the commission approve the resolution establishing the committee, arguing the committee could in turn deal with the easement and amendment questions.

“I wish we could cut the trees and forget about the easements, and let the landowners go ahead and live their lives,” Commissioner Johnny Hughes said.

The unanimously approved resolution stipulates the committee includes two county commission representatives; two Midway residents; and two University personnel.

The commission selected Johnny Hughes (District 5) and Greg King (District 4) as commissioner representatives. Johnny Hughes and King in turn selected landowners Kevin Gilliam and Matt Hughes as the Midway representatives. The committee will meet at 6 p.m., Monday, Aug. 2, in the Community Room at the Franklin County Annex.