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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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County, DRBA Split Over Airport

Single Engine Plane Crashes at Cape May County Airport
Christopher South

By Christopher South

Cape May County Hopes to Use Site for Projects Including Housing; Authority Declines Offer to Be Property’s “Air Side” Operator

Cape May County wants to regain control of the 1,000-acre Cape May County Airport but would like the Delaware River and Bay Authority to run the “air side” of the property, county officials say.

The county, which owns the airport but leased it to the DRBA for a 30-year term that has five years left, wants it back because it would “create tremendous opportunities to address needs of our residents and improve important quality-of-life issues in the county,” said Leonard Desiderio, director of the Board of County Commissioners.

County Counsel Jeffrey Lindsay, in an email to the DRBA’s executive director, Thomas Cook, said that among the opportunities the county wanted to explore was developing mixed-income housing on the airport property.

Lindsay said the county reached out to Cook via email May 7, saying Cape May wished to regain control of land at the airport. In general, Lindsay said, the consensus of the commissioners was to lease the “air side” to the DRBA for airport operations, while the county wished to control the “land side.”

But in a copy of the correspondence provided by the county, Cook responded on May 9 that the DRBA board was not interested in being the airport’s operator. He said the authority would support Cape May in the transition to an alternate operator if that was the way it wanted to go.

“If a notice of termination is given there will be a lot of work and discussion needed (to) facilitate the process and repayment to the authority,” Cook wrote.

James Salmon, public information officer for the DRBA, said the authority would expect to reclaim about $30 million for improvements it made to the airport, with the precise amount a matter of negotiation.

Salmon said that the operating cost of the airport is about $1 million per year.

Currently, the county is apparently still considering all revenues and costs associated with the airport, which will remain under DRBA administration for the next five years.

Lindsay said it was important to understand that the airport is a revenue-generating property that includes more than 40 rental units, 20 hangar units and open land that can be used to improve the quality of life in the county.

“The current annual revenue of approximately $775,000 will be further increased by the soon-to-be constructed multi-tenant building and Tech Village II,” the attorney said.

The county would collect rents from all existing and future rentals and property leases, including the Aviation Sports Complex that is in the planning stages. The new terminal building, which will be completed before the current lease expires, will be a multi-tenant building.

Asked how a change in management of the airport would affect ongoing and future projects, including the new terminal, Lindsay said, “There has not yet been a decision to change management. “

He said it is the county’s desire that the DRBA continue to operate the airport, but if it declines to take that course, the county would have to decide whether it would run the airport or contract with a new operator.

The lease was the subject of an emergency meeting of the county commissioners on June 6. The commissioners voted 3-1 at that meeting, with Will Morey dissenting, to give the DRBA notice that the county would not automatically renew the lease, which is for $1 per year, for another 30-year term.

The commissioners had to take action at that time to meet the 60-month window to give notice of non-renewal, or the lease would be automatically extended another 30 years.

Lindsay said the county had been attempting to communicate with the DRBA about the lease since February and finally scheduled a meeting for May 14. But the meeting was canceled, and on May 22 Lindsay and county Administrator Kevin Lare met with Cook and Victor Ferzetti, the DRBA’s chief financial officer, and they discussed a 60-day extension for the notice of non-renewal of the lease, which was signed on June 8, 1999.

The attorney said that, on May 28, all of the commissioners voted to authorize such an extension to the lease’s notice provision.

“All commissioners further agreed that if the DRBA did not execute the extension, they would return for an emergency meeting before June 8 to discuss the notice of non-renewal,” Lindsay said.

On May 31, he said, the DRBA replied that it could not execute the extension, and the commissioners called the June 6 emergency meeting.

Desiderio said at that meeting that the decision to give non-renewal notice was not taken lightly and, while it might require great investment from the county, regaining control of the airport would pay off for its residents.

DRBA Executive Director Thomas Cook at the groundbreaking for the new $7.4 million terminal building at the Cape May County Airport.

Lindsay, asked about the impact the county’s move would have on its 25-year relationship with the DRBA, said it need not negatively impact it, but that the county’s first obligation is to its residents.

“This was a decision that the county made in the best interests of our residents and visitors – the county owns the land, and the Cape May County Board of Commissioners is the governing body that represents the interests of our county residents,” he said.

“The board, on behalf of our residents, should be vetting and have input on how that land is used for the residents’ benefit.”

Call Christopher South at 609-886-8600 x-128 or email csouth@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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