Opposition to the airport runway extension in Macon County continues to mount, with a standing-room-only crowd attending last week’s Airport Authority meeting and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project.
The controversial runway project would pave over Cherokee burial grounds and artifacts. The Airport Authority has agreed to have 25 percent of the artifacts at the site excavated, but the remaining will stay in place and be threatened by the construction.
There are approximately 400 burials at the site, according to an archaeological assessment done on the site in 2000. All of the burials will remain in place at the request of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The Airport Authority has been very sensitive to the Eastern Band’s concerns about artifacts and burials at the site, Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said. Excavating 25 percent of the artifacts at the site will cost $535,000. Gregory said 100 percent excavation cannot be done because it would cost around $2 million, which is more than the Airport Authority can afford.
However, Gregory announced at the meeting that the Airport Authority is now attempting to secure additional funding to do “stripping and mapping” of the entire site. He said the Eastern Band is very pleased with this.
Federal Aviation Administration Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen confirmed that the FAA will provide additional funding for the stripping and mapping, but she didn’t know how much.
Archaeologist Mike Trinkley of South Carolina, who performed the archaeological assessment in 2000, said stripping and mapping does not remove the artifacts and burials from harm’s way. It simply involves taking off the top layer of soil and documenting what is there.
“Simply mapping the site does little in resolving the loss of information,” said Trinkley. “There will be a map showing where stuff was found, but by the time construction begins the stuff will be destroyed.”
Several project opponents at the meeting asked the Airport Authority how it could justify paving over gravesites.
The artifacts are not the only reason opponents are against the runway extension. Some just want to preserve the rural character and peaceful nature of the Iotla Valley.
Many at last week’s meeting were nearby residents of the Iotla Valley and wore buttons urging that the valley be saved.
Dolly Reed of Franklin said she has Cherokee lineage and urged the Airport Authority to “let my people rest in peace.”
Resident Olga Pader said those who live in the valley have been excluded from meetings. Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins said every Airport Authority meeting has been publicly announced. But Pader noted that there was a private meeting a couple of weeks ago with state, local, federal and Eastern Band officials discussing the project.
County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who serves as the Airport Authority liaison, said that was not an official Airport Authority meeting, but was a special conference called by the Eastern Band. Kuppers said the public cannot continue to be suspicious of the county government.
“If this sort of suspicion grows we’re in trouble as a county,” said Kuppers.
A distrust of county officials will destroy the county, said Kuppers, adding that the county commissioners are more open now than they’ve ever been.
The runway extension appears to be getting personal for some, as tempers were flying at the meeting.
Lamar Marshall, with the environmental group Wild South of Asheville, said one of the Airport Authority members called him “crazy as hell” at a recent County commission meeting. Airport Authority member Harold Corbin admitted he was the one who called Marshall “crazy as hell.”
In response to the insult, Marshall wore his Crazy Horse T-shirt to the Airport Authority meeting last week. He said his group is planning a lawsuit against the Authority and others involved in the project.
Corbin became impatient with Franklin resident Selma Sparks, who was trying to speak:
“Sit down, because you’re through,” Corbin told Sparks.
However, not all those in attendance at the meeting last week were against the runway extension. Macon County resident Dwight Vinson said extending the runway 500 feet is good for the county’s economic development.
Franklin resident Norm Roberts agreed that the runway extension is needed for the county to thrive.
“This airport is essential to the economy of the area,” said Roberts.
Others also stated that the runway extension could help bring jobs to the area, but those in favor were heavily outnumbered by those against.
Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said he agreed with some of the statements made by the public and disagreed with others.
Gregory then stated, as he has numerous times in public forums since the controversy erupted about a month ago, that the runway extension has been planned for eight years and that the public has been aware of the project for that long but is just now beginning to express concern.
Want to be on the board?
The five-member Macon County Airport Authority is appointed by the county commissioners for six-year terms.
Terms for members Tommy Jenkins and Harold Corbin are set to expire June 30 of this year, while terms for members Gary Schmitt and Pete Haithcock don’t expire until 2011. Chairman Milles Gregory’s term doesn’t expire until 2013.
The board meets the last Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. at the Macon County Airport.