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Airport issue raises questions
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The "investment" in airport expansion that Newton and Rockdale County developers want from the Covington City Council won't come from the council alone, since costs as well as any benefits will reach far beyond the city itself. And so should the questions to be asked.

In the asking, county residents should remember that as taxpayers they helped to finance the federal grants that dwarf Covington's small contribution to the conversion of what was a dirt strip into a runway capable of accommodating all but the largest of corporate jets.

Questioners shouldn't wait like Governor Sonny did in ignoring the looming water crisis until the well had all but run dry. Nor should they be satisfied with the softball inquiries served up by bankers in issuing "no-doc" subprime loans that now threaten recession or worse.

As one who spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and editor asking questions of those in power - questions that they often did not want to answer - let me suggest the following:

Whose back gets scratched in this airport expansion project or, to put it crassly and more correctly, whose pocket gets lined if, as promised, a larger, noisier, dirtier airport attracts the commerce, industry and people growth for which developers hunger greedily?

Is it the land speculators, builders, construction and other investment interests? Among those making the "investment" plea to the Covington City Council were Chairman Rob Fowler of the county Industrial Development Authority and member Frank Turner Jr.

Could it be the smaller fries who will make out like gangsters, folks like those developer-builders who probably have clear-cut more acreage than all the county pioneers in making room for cotton? For a demonstration of their handiwork, take a look at the subdivisions that feature cracker box ready-mades jammed cheek by jowl and not a tree to be seen.

Whatever their rank in the so-called "development community," Covington-Newton Chamber of Commerce President John Boothby speaks for both be's and wannabes.

"The city that invests in itself will attract other investors to invest their money in the city," he was quoted by The Covington News in true chamberspeak.

Anyone, who has inquired, knows that the development community funds the chamber and the chamber president's salary. But as any chamber mouthpiece will tell you off the tape, "He whose bread I eat, his song I sing."

Among other development pleaders were our next door neighbors from Rockdale County headed by member Roland Vaughn of the Conyers/Rockdale Economic Development Council Inc. Odd, isn't it, that a county that's never bothered to build its own airport now wants Newton to take that chore off Rockdale's hands?

Who pays for the airport expansion now in the City Council decision process? "Pay" needs a definition before I get to the role of process. It can by no means be confined to dollars and cents in this case. The developers want to collect from your quality of life and that of your environment as well as from your pocketbook and those of the city, state and county.

The developer awakened at 3 a.m. by the scream of a corporate jet spooling up on the Covington runway will turn over comforted by the thought that this is the cost of doing business - his business. Not so the dirt dauber on Airport Road who has a hard day ahead manning a shovel or the Oxford College sophomore who got to bed at 2 after cramming for tomorrow's final that will determine if Emory University's doors will open for him next semester..

Airports attract development of the warehouse slum variety. Look at Chamblee's Peachtree-DeKalb Airport. Check, too, with PDK Watch, activists who have spent years trying to keep air traffic in bounds. Warehouses, along with other industrial growth and cheapjack starter homes, add to the impervious surfaces that funnel polluted runoff into our watersheds.

Development brings people, people and more people. The people squeeze the elbow room - in schools, on streets and highways and in health and other human services. Oh, and don't forget the squeeze by both people and industry on water supply. Easing the squeeze means increasing services and then paying the higher taxes necessary to do that.

By "process" I mean the attempts at regulation with which we Americans infrequently seek to manage this growth. It works inefficiently if at all. The last airport expansion here offers a case in point. I had a small hand in Oxford's attempt to persuade Covington to close the airport and join Newton, Walton, Morgan and Jasper counties in building a regional airport worthy of its class on an acceptable site in what has become the Stanton Springs development node.

When that failed, Oxford sought to block expansion of the airport hard up against its eastern limits because of likely damage to the historic town, its environment and that of Oxford College of Emory University.  

After an environmental assessment marred by the appearance of self-dealing, fraud and delusion, the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in effect asked one question: Had the Federal Aviation Administration gone through the required assessment process? In short, had the FAA circled the bases even if it missed one or two on the way by?

That brings us back to the question: Should Newton County residents "invest" in expanding the wrong airport, in the wrong place, at the wrong time without full knowledge of who pays and who profits? Wiley Allgood, a local fellow who flew wide-bodies for Delta into Rome and London before his retirement, had it right back in 1992 when the current expansion was first proposed. "Smart people," said Wiley, "don't build airports downtown anymore."

How smart would county residents be to sit by in silence and let the question of who pays and who profits be decided only by the greedy in the development community and Covington's City Council?

Claude Sitton, a former New York Times editor, Emory professor and current Oxford resident, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1983.