October 29, 2008 Edition

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Meeting held regarding
ongoing dispute

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Representatives from the Walnut Ridge Country Club, Airport Commission and Walnut Ridge City Council, along with Mayor Michelle Rogers, airport engineer Stacey Morris and attorneys held a three-hour meeting this past Wednesday. They met to try to reach an agreement and thus avoid having a trial, which is set for Nov. 10.

Several ideas were presented during the meeting with the goal being to ensure a golf course continues to exist while not jeopardizing the safety or progress of the airport. The meeting was held because Judge Harold Erwin had previously asked the groups to try and settle their legal dispute themselves without a trial.

Proximity of course considered hazard
The proximity of the golf course, which is located adjacent to, and partly wrapped around an airport runway, is considered a safety hazard. The city of Walnut Ridge owns the land the golf course is located on and leases the property to the golf club. The country club's lease is not due to expire until 2068.

The problem began when a federal inspector filed a report, following a routine airport inspection, noting that the golf course had seven holes, tee boxes, cart paths, trees, etc., that violate the airport's safety zones. The obstacles have been there for a number of years, but were only recently brought to the attention of the FAA.

"When the airport applied for a 139 certification so they could operate as an air carrier and cargo airport, that brought a federal inspector here for the first time in years. That's where the problem started leading to today," said attorney David Cahoon, who is representing the city and airport commission in the matter.

In order for the airport to be in compliance with aviation regulations, airport officials say the obstacles must be removed.

"I've told my clients that this is the last best chance to avoid a trial and more hard feelings," C.W. Knauts, attorney for the golf club, said during the meeting. "We want to resolve this. Our position is we're trying to survive and co-exist with the airport."

"We're in a position in which we have nowhere to go. We haven't the money to build a new course. My clients are trying to be open-minded and lay all hard feelings aside to try and move forward."

78-acre trade offered
Terry Ryan, golf club representative, asked the city and the airport commission if they had anything to present to the golf club.

"We have 78 acres to trade you for the 78 acres you now lease," Cahoon said. "The airport commission is willing to lease land of equal acreage adjacent to your current course and out of the airport's safety zones." Stacey Morris, airport engineer, told the golf club that he had prepared a layout of a golf course on the offered acreage.

"The course would start at the clubhouse and end up back at the clubhouse," he said. "It may need to be tweaked, but this would give the airport the needed clearance. The only other option would be to move the golf course and the clubhouse."

Alderman Michael "Button' Wallin said this plan would give the airport clearance now as well as in the future." I think we've wasted six months running back and forth. This is a new plan �something that could work."

He added that he thought everyone should agree on a plan and find a way somehow to finance and build it. "With new technology, we can probably build it back better than it is now."

Alderman Jonathan Sanders asked if the FAA would work with them, and if this solution would be permanent. "We don't want to have to deal with this again in the future," he said.

Mayor Rogers told him that she had spoken with Ed Agnew, manager of the Arkansas�klahoma Division of the FAA, and that he has no problem with relocating the course on the offered property.

Mark Biggers, also representing the country club, said, "Part of our frustration is we've got to come up with the money to move or build the course. We have a strong membership, and we get to keep two holes. The airport loses no runways. That's a lot of give on our part."

Cahoon explained things are complicated by the fact that the problem involves a public entity that receives tax dollars and a private enterprise.

"We can't give up things to a private enterprise without breaking all kinds of laws," he said. "The federal government is willing to let us flip lands to help solve this problem, but public money cannot be used to support a private country club."

According to Cahoon, the club has been offered equipment to help build or move the golf course, fuel for the machinery needed, volunteer labor and $100,000 from an individual to start the fund-raising needed to build it.

Ryan said the golf club would have to have a golf course architect look over the property, but that one architect had already told him there wasn't enough room on the 78 acres being offered.

"The country club is very community-minded, and we have a valid lease," Ryan said. "We've always been willing to do what's best for our community."

Wallin said the airport has to be brought into compliance because of the liability problem, and for the safety of golfers and pilots alike.

Municipal course, bond issue discussed

Knauts asked if the city had considered making it a municipal golf course and getting the community involved. He asked if a bond issue had been considered or possibly a grant to provide the $1.5 million to build a nine-hole course. The bond issue would require a special election.

Mayor Rogers said that she would have to meet with all the city council members before she could give an answer.

Knauts reminded those present that they have an impending trial date on Nov. 10. "We need to tell the court something satisfactory," he said. "The key is funding. We're open to all the help we can get, machines, hoes, rakes, whatever we can get."

Cahoon asked what the city and the airport are supposed to do about the violations right now, with both of them being liable.

"I won't advise the city to enter into an agreement while they're waiting for the possibility of a bond and still be out of compliance with the FAA," Cahoon said.

Wallin asked if any part of what the city and airport had offered was something the golf club could work with.

"We have been willing to do what we can, even trade for the same amount of land as we have now," Ryan said. "We haven't the means to move or build a course. We're not going to walk away from it either. If we can get plans that'll work and money to do it with, we can work with it."

Morris Polston, golf club representative, said he wanted to make sure every option to co-exist has been explored.

"If we lose, we lose everything," he said. "That airport is safe. If it wasn't, it would be shut down. The airport got an award for safety and growth while our club was out there."

Polston also noted that even if they had the money and the land to build a new course, it would still be two years before they could play on it.

"I feel we've had a fruitful conversation here," Knauts said near the conclusion of the meeting. "We have to decide whether we want to go to trial on Nov. 10 or take more time."

"We have two representatives from the airport commission and two from the city council," Cahoon said. "They can't speak for their entire groups."

Cahoon asked if the country club would be willing to stay off the property until the dispute is settled. The golf club members said no.

"I see us buying time by removing trees and rerouting golf paths, but the people in the safety area are a different story," said Wallin. "Freak accidents happen. We might buy some time, but we have to deal with the problem today."

Each of the parties are to let their attorneys know how they want to proceed before the upcoming court date.

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