County executives seek change at LVIA

-- Dec. 14--Passenger travel is down at the Lehigh Valley International Airport and the large commercial planes that people often associate with big-time airports have in recent years given way to small regional jets and even propeller...

Doughty says that's simply not true. He agrees LVIA can one day be a major player in regional aviation, but not in the midst of a recession that has caused double-digit decline in passenger travel nationwide.

He said that while LVIA's direct routes are limited, the airport has attracted two major carriers -- AirTran and Allegiant Air -- in the past two years and American Airlines will start flying from LVIA in June. It now has eight airlines flying to 13 destinations -- its most ever, he said.

And while it's true that LVIA now features smaller planes with fewer than 60 seats, that's a nationwide trend that started several years ago when fuel prices forced airlines to reduce seats and move less crowded routes into smaller planes to save fuel.

"Smaller planes are not a reflection of anything we've done or that LVIA is a small-time airport," Walbert said. "It's a reflection of business decisions by the airlines. What's going on here is short-sighted thinking by people who don't know the facts and don't want to know the facts."

Stoffa said he knows all he needs to know.

"All I know is that every time a family member or friend comes into town, I have to drive to the Philadelphia airport to pick them up," Stoffa said. "If the airport is running so well, why do so many people in the Lehigh Valley have to drive to Philadelphia or Newark?"

Costly litigation

If disappointment that LVIA hasn't met their expectations got Stoffa and Cunningham to start paying attention to the airport, 13 years of failed -- and costly -- litigation has prompted them to act.

In the early 1990s, the airport publicized a master plan that called for airport expansion, including a new runway, into a parcel that stretches from Willow Brook Road to just across Weaversville Road, spanning parts of Allen and East Allen townships in Northampton County and Hanover Township in Lehigh County.

Land mortgage holder Peter Fuller of Catasauqua and Flemington, N.J., developers WBF Associates, sued in 1996, claiming the airport plan amounted to an 'inverse condemnation' of the property, rendering it undevelopable and killing a planned 632-acre, 1,500-home and golf course development called Windwillow.

In 1998, a Lehigh County judge ruled against the airport and ordered it to pay for the land, with interest and damages. For the past 11 years, the airport authority has repeatedly challenged both the ruling and the amount it owes, twice taking it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

But it has lost at every level, so now, property deemed to be worth $10.4 million has taken on interest and penalty costs that have run the bill to $25.5 million. In the process, the airport has spent $1.5 million on its own legal fees -- and because it lost the case -- is also on the hook for $437,000 in fees and costs for Allentown attorney Kevin Fogerty, who represents Fuller and WBF.

Doughty contends the airport would be paying just as much interest had it taken out a loan or sold bonds to pay the debt.

In October, the Supreme Court again denied an appeal by the airport. The ruling and amount are no longer in dispute, but the airport has taken the case back to Lehigh County Court, where it will argue that it does not have the money to pay.

"If I ran the county like this, there would be outrage," Cunningham said. "I don't understand how they could have allowed this to happen."

Doughty said the airport had no choice.

"We had to keep appealing because we never had a check to write and [the developers] refused to allow us to pay the judgment over time," Doughty said. "It may sound hard to believe, but this was out of our control."

Doughty added that the court award cannot legally affect airport business, including the nearly $15 million project to renovate the terminal over the next two years.

The two sides were back in Lehigh County Court on Friday, making more motions in advance of an April 19 hearing at which the court will be asked to determine how the airport will pay the bill.

The FAA -- which helps fund all airport capital projects, including expansion -- will help pay at least some of the judgment, although it's unclear how much. It's already paid $3.1 million, the original value set on the land by LVIA consultants.

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