Future of Braden Airpark still up in the air as authority hires developer to do initial study

Future of Braden Airpark up in the air

FORKS TWP., Pa. - The future of Braden Airpark in Forks Twp., Northampton Co., is up in the air for now.

A New York City development company is interested in purchasing some of more than 800 acres of land owned by Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority -- possibly including Braden Airpark in Forks Twp.,, Northampton Co. – to help the authority pay off a $16 million legal debt.

The authority voted 11-1 Tuesday afternoon to enter into an initial contract with Rockefeller Group that begins a long process toward the developer acquiring or leasing properties. The authority probably will know exactly what properties Rockefeller wants before the end of this year.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski cast the only no vote on the authority board, because he does not agree with terms of the agreement with Rockefeller.

Authority board chairman Anthony Iannelli said news stories about a possible sale of the 74-acre Braden Airpark don't put it any higher or lower on the authority's radar. He said it will be looking at many pieces of real estate for possible sale "and there are hurdles in almost every case."

"Next week if we announce in the paper that we're going to sell a piece of farmland we'll have a roomful of farmers in here," joked Iannelli.

Airport officials said most of the land under consideration currently is farmed.

Selling Braden Airpark would be a big mistake, said Vern Moyer, president of Moyer Aviation, which leases and operates that airport.

Moyer explained the airport's operations include pilot training, charter service to anywhere in the United States and Canada and a service center that maintains private planes from all over the Northeast. He said the airport isn't losing money.

"We provide services to the general public and we would like to see the airport continue," Moyer said.

Moyer said 60 aircraft are based at Braden, adding the authority purchased Braden to ease congestion at Queen City Airport in south Allentown and Lehigh Valley International Airport. If Braden is sold, he predicted, "some people will lose interest, sell their planes and get out of aviation."

Erik Chuss, chairman of the Forks Township board of supervisors, asked the airport authority to consult with township officials before any decision is made about selling Braden. "We are a stakeholder in this," he said, adding the township considers Braden an asset. Chuss realizes it's very preliminary to discuss a possible sale, but wants to make sure Forks is in the loop.

"We hear you loud and clear about how important BA (Braden Airpark) is," said Iannelli. "We know we can't do it in a vacuum. We hear everybody's voice."

Outside the meeting, Chuss said Braden is part of the township's transportation infrastructure, adding the land is zoned only for recreation, municipal and educational uses. He said replacing the airport with houses or a shopping center would require rezoning by the township.

"It's very early in the process," said airport executive director Charles Everett. "No decision has been made about the disposition of any particular parcel."

By December 2015, the authority must pay off a $16 million judgment against the airport involving properties that were purchased many years ago. Some of those same properties now may be sold to Rockefeller to help pay off that judgment.

Everett said the airport's payment obligation, fixed by court order, is $2 million due this year, $3 million in 2013, $5 million in 2014 and $6 million in 2015.

It's too soon to say if selling properties will raise enough to pay off that judgment, according to Sherri Billowitz, the airport's director of administration and finance.

She said Rockefeller is not interested in purchasing all the available parcels. She has not discussed Braden with Rockefeller, but stressed the airport authority could decide not to sell Braden -- or any other parcel it owns.

Everett said the authority should know which properties Rockefeller wants by the end of this year.

Beginning in early October, Rockefeller will spend 45 days preparing a master plan for review and approval by the authority board.

Authority Solicitor Glenn Williams explained if that conceptual plan is approved, Rockefeller will negotiate a letter of intent with the authority to purchase, lease or enter into a joint venture for specific properties it wants. That will be followed by another agreement with the authority.

If that agreement is approved, said Williams, Rockefeller will spend 120 days studying target properties, including engineering studies.

After that, the developer will have up to one year to seek any required land use approvals, including zoning changes, before closing any deals.

Williams said if there is not "a meeting of the minds" between the authority and Rockefeller on a particular property, the authority will be able to sell it someone else.

"The authority maintains control over the ultimate decision," he said. "If we don't like the terms, the authority doesn't have to approve that. It hasn't relinquished control of its property."

Pawlowski said he voted no because he objected to an exclusivity agreement in the contract with Rockefeller. He also doesn't like language in the contract that allows the developer to walk away if it doesn't like an appraisal. And he also said the authority must pay a fixed six percent commission price "for anything, which is a negative for us."

The mayor said his vote has nothing to do with the authority recently rejecting his proposal to sell all or part of Queen City Airport.

Everett said there is no exclusivity agreement in the contract with Rockefeller.

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