Municipal Laws

Fights That Matter: Local Government and State Tangle Over Ownership and Control of an Airport

A very interesting battle is going on in the western part of the State between a local government and the powers in Raleigh over the ownership and control of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, reportedly the 6th-busiest airport (traffic)/23rd-busiest airport (passengers) in the world.

Some view the fight as between the reach of local governments and the reach of the State, others view the fight as between political parties, some view it as between a pro-government and pro-public/private partnership camps, while still others view it as between business interests.

“It’s a 13 member commission comprised of various individuals appointed by myriad government bodies and other things.  But that’s not important right now.”

The story is as follows.  

The First Law.  
In mid-July, the General Assembly adopted Session Law 2013-272, which created the Charlotte Douglas International Airport Authority, defined by the Session Law to be “a body corporate and politic, having the powers, authority, and  jurisdiction hereinafter enumerated and such other and additional powers and authority as shall be conferred upon it by future acts of the General Assembly”.  The Authority would consist of 11 members appointed from various “pools”.

But the creation of the Authority is not, in itself, what ruffled feathers.  Session Law 2013-272 transferred from the City of Charlotte to the newly-created Charlotte Douglas International Airport Authority “[a]ll right, title, and interest of the City of Charlotte in and to the Airport Property, Airport Facilities, and Charlotte Douglas International Airport … as a matter of law when this act becomes law.”

This transfer of ownership upset the City.   

The Lawsuit.  
On July 13, five days before the Session Law took effect, the City of Charlotte filed a lawsuit in State court against the State and the Authority (the latter did not yet exist, technically) to restrain the enforcement of the Act, including (or, specifically) the transfer of the Airport’s ownership to the Authority.  

The Lawsuit claimed four bases for stopping the transfer of ownership: (1) the Session Law is a local act prohibited by the North Carolina Constitution, (2) the transfer of ownership will trigger a default of municipal bonds used to fund the Airport, (3) the Session Law is inconsistent with federal law governing the “certification and licensing of airports”, and (4) the transfer of ownership is not a valid exercise of the eminent domain powers, and, if it is a valid exercise, it is one without the payment of just compensation.

The Temporary Restraining Order
On July 18, the Court entered a Temporary Restraining Order in the City’s favor and against the State and the Authority preventing the State “from taking any action to implement or enforce the Act” and preventing the transfer of the Airport’s ownership.  The Court extended the Order through July 29, at which point it would hear the parties in full on a preliminary injunction.  

So, everyone is paused until we can determine whether this should be paused.

Notably, in issuing the Order, the Court scribbled out the City’s likelihood of success on points (2) and (3) from above, signaling that the Court is, at first blush, more convinced of the City’s arguments (1) and (4).

The Second Law.  
On  July 25, in response to the lawsuit and the TRO, the State Senate substituted Senate Bill 380, which had been introduced back in March to address sanitary landfill fees, with a Second Bill that would repeal the First Bill and ostensibly remove the need for (or at least moot) the lawsuit. We don’t know enough about the rules of the General Assembly to know why a bill was substituted in entirety, rather than a new bill introduced, but we can guess:  speed.

New Senate Bill 380, substituted in entirely on July 25 for Old Senate Bill 380, was passed into law on July 26 (yes, today) as Session Law 2013-358.

According to reports, the Second Law — which repeals the First Law — is different in that (1) the airport would stay a city asset, and (2) bonds would stay with the city too, avoiding a switch mandated by the authority bill that the city highlighted as a problem when it filed a lawsuit.  But the Second Law still takes away control of the Airport from the City, in that operations and finances would be run by a new 13-member commission.  

What’s Next?

According to reports, the City is not satisfied with the Second Law, either.  The lawsuit will need to be amended, but we can be sure the fight is not over.  What we can glean is that neither side really wants to litigate.

Mike Thelen practices in Womble, Carlyle’s Real Estate Litigation and Land Use practice group. He regularly represents a wide variety of clients, from local governments to businesses, in land use and land development matters in both state and federal venues throughout North Carolina.  Follow the North Carolina Land Use Litigator on Twitter at @nclanduselaw.

Categories: Municipal Laws

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