Monday, August 15, 2005

DeKalb airport records public - Atlanta Attorney

A judge has ruled that DeKalb County violated the Georgia Open Records Act by withholding information about aircraft at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, delivering a significant victory to activists who have battled the airfield's expansion for two decades.
The county government was ordered to release volumes of previously undisclosed records — such as aircraft identification numbers, noise levels and flight tracks — on the operations that have made the north DeKalb airfield the second-busiest in Georgia.
Backers of the lawsuit believe the documents will prove what they have long suspected: that airport officials, in their zeal to generate revenue from private aircraft, have allowed oversized planes to operate at the field known by its airport code, PDK, violating federal rules.
Activists also claim airport officials evaded federal laws requiring environmental studies of noise, air and ground pollution and obstructed tax collections on aircraft, costing DeKalb about $2 million per year in lost revenue.
County officials issued a statement Wednesday that they "appreciate the import of the ruling" but declined to comment further.
Lawyers for the county had said in court that the officials would comply with whatever the judge decided.
The ruling provides a major boost to the cause of homeowners — at times marginalized as conspiracy theorists — who told tales of giant aircraft swooping over their rooftops in the cover of night and airliners parked on their neighborhood airstrip.
The movement gained momentum once the lawsuit was filed in 2004, providing a touchstone for other residents who had begun to raise their voices for open government. With a political buzz building and grass-roots support intact, Charles "Mickey" Feltus, who lives near the airport, pressed his lawsuit with the help of tens of thousands of dollars in donations from all across DeKalb.
The uneasy relationship between the airport and its neighbors dates to the 1970s, with speculation that the county wanted to create a regional commercial airport in the middle of a north DeKalb bedroom community.
In the late 1980s, when the county received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the runway, concerns about neighborhood encroachment boiled over.
A court battle over the project set the stage for years in which residents requested documents about the size limit of planes permitted on the upgraded runway, but were stonewalled by officials.
"It shows the government has to be responsive to its citizens whether it wants to or not," Feltus said Wednesday. "What a shame that all the time and energy and contempt that's been involved in this thing [was] caused by people's arrogance, people who don't have respect for the public.
"I think we may have struck a nail in the coffin of preventing Hartsfield north from coming to the county," he said, referring to Atlanta's international airport, the busiest in the nation.
Superior Court Judge Robert J. Castellani rejected the DeKalb County government's principal defense that aircraft noise levels, identification numbers, flight tracks and other specific data about air traffic at PDK could not be made public because of a confidentiality agreement with the FAA.
In letters to airport officials regarding Feltus' requests for information, the FAA has cited the confidentiality provision. But FAA officials have not commented directly on the case and did not return calls from reporters seeking comment Wednesday.
Castellani said the county's agreement with the FAA "should not be used to subvert the letter and spirit" of Georgia's Open Records Act "in contravention of this state's stated policy of openness in government."
Castellani issued his order Monday. Lawyers for Feltus said they learned of the ruling Tuesday evening.
Feltus and fellow activists said they plan to press for a permanent injunction to prevent the county from refusing future requests for airport records. They also intend to ask the judge to order the county to pay Feltus' legal fees.
State Sen. David Adelman (D-Atlanta), who represents the area around the airport, urged DeKalb not to appeal the ruling.
"Finally, the people who live near PDK Airport will be able to find out whether airplanes which regularly fly close to the rooftops of their homes are violating the law," Adelman said. "I implore the DeKalb County Commission and the managers of PDK to ? cease their wasteful and stubborn litigation."

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