Watchdog Group Slams PDK Over Changes to Noise, Environmental Study

June 5, 2024

A citizen watchdog group says DeKalb-Peachtree Airport officials have cut them out of discussions about a long-planned noise and environmental study, disputing assurances airport staff gave county commissioners that the two groups are working closely.

The study was commissioned last year, part of an agreement between the county and Open DeKalb to avert a lawsuit by the group challenging the use of the airport by heavy planes, which it believes are disruptive to the surrounding neighborhoods. The group has sought to block any airport expansion, including the proposed Sky Harbour hangar construction, until the full study is complete.

This month, airport staff told commissioners they want to change the study, an announcement that a spokesman from Open DeKalb said came “out of the blue.” The limited conversations between the two groups had not included any discussion of the proposed changes, said Larry Foster, who is also a member of PDK Watch, another airport community group.

“We were absolutely shocked that they were proposing changing the study from what we had carefully put together with the experts,” Foster said.

Interim Airport Director Hunter Hines said PDK isn’t changing the study. The work they’ve proposed is in addition to what was agreed upon with Open DeKalb, which will proceed as planned, he said.

“It’s not going to affect the study in any kind of way,” Hines said. “This is something extra that the airport wants to do.”

The airport, located in Chamblee and operated by DeKalb County, is the second-busiest in the state after Hartsfield-Jackson International. It’s a popular destination for corporate flights thanks to its position inside the perimeter and just a few miles from I-85.

That location has also made it a frequent target of nearby residents who live under and around the flight paths. The airport’s new master plan, approved last fall, calls for an increase in flights as well as additional hangar construction, growth that Open DeKalb and others have said will only add to the existing disruptions.

“We don’t want to see it get worse,” Foster said.

Sky Harbour’s proposed hangar development is the first project the airport has put forward under the new master plan. The New York-based company, which was the sole bidder, wants to build a corporate aviation hanger on the east side of the airport in exchange for a 50-year lease. Airport officials estimate it would generate about $500 million in tax revenue over the course of the lease, $211 million of which would go toward the county.

The proposal is controversial. Earlier this year, commissioners delayed a vote on it, with some saying they wanted to see the results of the noise and environmental study before making a decision. In addition to their concerns about airport expansion, residents have questioned awarding such a large contract in a single-source bid process.

Hines said the commissioners’ request is what prompted the airport to go back to HMMH, the consultants conducting the study, and ask for changes.

As designed, the study is expected to take at least 18 months to complete, and airport officials worry such a delay could prompt Sky Harbour to walk away from the project if commissioners wait to vote.

“There’s a lot of things that can happen in 18 months,” Hines said.

The original study has three components. The plan is to compare existing noise and pollution against two future scenarios — one if the master plan is implemented and one if it is not. Airport officials now want to add a third future scenario that looks only at the impact of the Sky Harbour development.

The full study is expect to cost $1.5 million and adding the Sky Harbour component would add an estimated $85,000 to the total. The consultants say the additional piece could be done within four to six months, according to a memo shared with commissioners.

Changing the study’s scope would require the board’s approval. Hines has come before the commissioners three times in May to discuss the proposed study changes, each time telling elected officials that the airport is working closely with Open DeKalb.

“We will continue to allow Open DeKalb to be a part of all of those discussions as we progress through the study,” Hines told the board during one committee meeting.

But Foster said that while Open DeKalb has been included in some conversations, the group has not been approached about the study changes the airport is proposing.

“We were told nothing in any way shape or form,” Foster said. “We absolutely did not agree to anything in any way shape or form about Sky Harbour.”

Hines told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that airport staff intend to schedule a meeting with Open DeKalb soon. He said they didn’t reach out to the group sooner because they wanted to know from the consultants if the change was feasible.

He also said the additional work doesn’t require Open DeKalb’s approval because the county is still proceeding with everything else it originally agreed to do.

“It’s not that we’re not including them but this is also not their project,” he said.

Even before this latest tiff, Open DeKalb was feeling shut out of the study process.

Their agreement with the county allows for their participation in meetings about the study in order to provide oversight and monitoring, but the group wasn’t included in an initial meeting kicking off the study in February, Foster said. Some of the oversight provisions they agreed to weren’t included in the contract with HMMH, either.

The group sent a letter of concern to Zach Williams, DeKalb’s chief operating officer, in April.

Since then, they’ve met with airport officials and the consultants once, to discuss the base year for the study. Hines has also emailed to solicit feedback on where to put the noise monitors.

“There hasn’t been close consultation,” Foster said.

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