August 27, 2008 Edition

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Stacey Morris (from left), Walnut Ridge Regional Airport's engineer, who is with ETI Corp. of Memphis; Christina Sardegna, a member of the Walnut Ridge Country Club; and Harold Johnson, president of the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School Museum Board, discuss the issues the airport and country club are facing as they try to resolve a conflict over a runway at the airport and the country club's golf course being too close together.
TD Photo ~ Gloria Wilkerson

Judge encourages
parties to settle dispute

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Representatives from the Walnut Ridge Golf Club, the Walnut Ridge Airport Commission and the City of Walnut Ridge have 30 days to work toward a solution to their conflict after Judge Harold Erwin granted a continuance for a motion heard in circuit court on Monday.

The Airport Commission's attorney had filed a request asking the judge to dismiss the golf club's lawsuit seeking an injunction against them because the Federal Aviation Administration was not included in their petition. The Golf Club's attorney asked that their lawsuit to prevent the airport commission from removing their golf course not be dismissed.

The issue began when the airport set out to upgrade its rating so that it can potentially receive commercial flights. The changes brought to the forefront the proximity of the golf course to one of the airport's runways and the safe air space needed for larger planes and the localizer.

"The city has accepted $7 million in grants since 1983 from the federal government," said David W. Cahoon of Paragould, attorney for the city and the airport. "Certain requirements have to be met by the city and the airport for the safety of pilots as well as people on the ground around the airport.

"Safety is the main issue, but the grants signed call for object free landing and air space. If these requirements are not met, the money obtained through the grants could possibly have to be repaid by the airport and city and it could also make it impossible to receive any grants in the future."

The golf course has been at its present location since 1960, with the lease signed in 1972 existing through December of 2068.

C.W. Knauts of Piggott, attorney for the golf club, told the judge that the golf course had been in the same location for more than 40 years without a problem until recently.

"The members have worked on improving their golf course throughout all those years and feel they have done nothing to violate their lease," he said. "The Walnut Ridge Golf Club has raised well over $1 million for the county in charitable golf tournaments. To say the 1972 lease is void ~ that's poppycock!"

Judge Erwin asked both sides to try to find a way to solve the problem themselves.

"What's going to happen is the federal government is going to take over this thing, and it will end up in federal court," he said. "This thing is going to get solved one way or another. I can grant a motion, but I can't solve the problem."

He then asked both sides to sit down right then and try to come up with a solution. The attorneys and their clients immediately adjourned to a meeting room in the Circuit Clerk's office.

When court resumed session after lunch, Knauts asked that the two parties be given 30 days longer to try to work the problem out. The judge granted the continuance and spoke again to those involved in the dispute.

"To try to force a settlement is difficult," he said. "It won't be pleasant for either side; we have an airport commission and a golf club butting heads, but everybody lives here. I hope you make every effort to settle this. Listen to your lawyers and see if you can solve it."

If a compromise is not found, and the Airport Commission's motion to dismiss the Golf Club's suit is not granted, the case is scheduled to come to trial in November.

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