Henry County Board of Commissioners (HCBoC) just announced the purchase of Tara Field airport from Clayton County.  The price of $10 million had been floated around but that number was directly disputed by Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell who said it would be “much more than that”.

He was right.

According to an announcement today by the Henry County Board of Commissioners, the purchase price is $17.7 million. They claim the taxpayers portion will only be $2.7 million over the next 3 years.

I call Bullshit.

Given the two lawsuits Bell successfully defended himself against from Willam “Billy” Abbate of Big 5 Enterprises who owns property adjacent to Tara Field, I can imagine Bell would have liked to stick it to the taxpayers of Henry County in regards to the final purchase price as payback to Abbate and his interference-runner, Henry County BoC Chairman B.J. Mathis.

Our economic Doo-doo

This might be a good time to mention that just last month Henry County BoC laid off 57 employees, did not fill 30 open job positions, and handed out 72 early retirement packages to county employees. This was in addition to big cuts made to the Library system due to budget constraints. Just last year the County and the School Boards both raised millage rates on Henry homeowners.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you that Henry County is deep economic doo-doo, take a look at this current 2011 Tax Digest and 5-year History of of Levy provided to me yesterday by Henry County Tax Commissioner, David Curry. We’ve been bleeding tax revenue and according to a statement made just last night by Curry at a meeting of the Republican Women of Henry County, we have not hit bottom.

Given all that, most reasonable people might question why, in a time of such economic hardship for Henry County, would the HCBoC even put their tax payers on the hook for such an enormous long term financial burden. The answer is as simple as greed and political cronyism run amok between B.J. Mathis and Billy Abbate.

Abbate’s First Big Plan: Don’t take no for an answer

In 2006 Billy Abbate as the owner of Lovejoy Realty, LLC purchased 97 acres adjacent to Tara Field.  He intended to develop a 20,000 square foot fixed base operation (FBO) (an airport service center that sells fuel).

Not long after, he went to the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (CCBoC) with a proposal to lease land on the airport, build the FBO, and then sub-lease it back to the county for them to operate. This would go on for a number of years until Abbate’s construction debt was retired then after that the county would own the FBO structure outright.

Also in Abbate’s proposal was his desire to build a 480 unit condominium project as well as airplane hangars on his newly purchased land. This would require Clayton County to agree to sign a “Through the Fence” (TTF) agreement which would give easement access to the airport grounds from his new development. In exchange, he would agree to give Clayton County access to the Henry County Sewer system via his property.

On September 5, 2006 by a vote of 4-0 Clayton County BoC (CCBoC) approved Resolution 2006-127 which authorized a Through the Fence agreement in principle, subject to negotiations and agreement of Chairman Eldrin Bell on the final terms. The resolution did not direct the Chairman to execute the proposed agreement. Although discussions continued regarding terms for a proposed easement access agreement, no final agreement was ever reached. According to court documents (p.5), Bell had concerns about the size, location, and ultimate control of the FBO, and also whether the FAA would approve the plan.

On October 27, 2006 a contract was signed between Clayton County and Executive Aircraft Storage, LLC, William Abbate, Administrator, to construct the FBO and improvements on the airport. However, this agreement did NOT grant Abbate easement access to the airport from his adjacent property.

A special meeting of the Commissioners was arranged for December 11, 2006 in which only three of the Commissioners attended, two of which only had 19 days left in office.  This was the day before a regularly scheduled meeting on December 12, 2006,  and curiously, at a time when neither Commissioner Wole Ralph , whose district is adjacent to Tara Field, nor Chairman Bell could attend.  In fact, Bell keeps a public calender which indicated he would be out of town complying with a subpoena in Baldwin County, GA.

Additionally, according to court affidavits, Chairman Bell and Commissioner Ralph, both claim they were not given the proper three day notification of the meeting as mandated by law.

During the special meeting, Resolution 2006-181 was approved by a vote of 3-0 which authorized “…Clayton County to enter into a revised Through the Fence agreement granting access easement associated with proposal from William L. Abbate.” Immediately following the meeting, the TTF contract was executed and signed by Vice-Chairman J. Charley Griswell and Billy Abbate.

On December 12th, less than 24 hours later, at a properly called regular meeting of the CCBoC in which all five members were present, the Commission voted 3-2 to rescind approval of Abbate’s TTF contract.

The next day a rescission letter was sent from Staff Attorney for CCBoC Michael L. Smith to Crandle Bray, Attorney for William Abbate, advising that the CCBoC approved a resolution rescinding the Through the Fence Agreement executed on the previous day.

“[B]ased on the actions taken by the Board of Commissioners, this letter shall serve as notice that the County does not consider the agreement to be a valid agreement and does not intend to honor any terms of the agreement.”

As it turns out, Chairman Bell’s concerns about FAA approval of the TTF were rightly justified because within a week the County received a letter from FAA District Airports Manager, Scott Serrit, assuring Bell the FAA did not, as a general rule, approve easement access agreements between private property and public airports. In this case though, the objection was magnified by the residential component of Abbate’s development project which would cause a number of problems for the FAA including noise complaints and unfair competition with on-airport business operators. If the County agreed to the TTF, he explained, they would most assuredly be in violation of laws which would jeopardize their federal grants for Tara Field.

Bell immediately responded to the FAA and assured them the TTF agreement had been rescinded and Clayton County had no intention of violating any of the federal Grant Assurances.

This prompted Abbate’s attorney to contact the FAA directly in an effort to appeal their decision to which the FAA responded in a letter to Clayton County that any appeal should be made by Clayton County and not the property owner. Even so, after reviewing Abbate’s information both the FAA Southern Regional Office and FAA Washington D.C. headquarters staff found nothing new that would change their determination to oppose the TTF agreement.

Billy Abbate’s Next Big Move: Act like nothing happened

I’m not sure what universe one must live in, with such strong opposition so adamantly stated by both the FAA and Clayton County, in which one could possibly believe this project could still fly.

At this point no one except Abbate thought it was a good idea to build 480 homes directly next to a runway. Without the TTF agreement he wouldn’t even be able to build hangars on his property since there wouldn’t be access to and from the taxiways. Denial – it’s not just a river in Egypt.

So what do you do?  Act like nothing happened!

On March 27, 2007 Billy Abbate filed in the office of Judith A. Lewis, Clerk of the Superior Court Henry County, Book 010079, page 195 the “Airport Access Easement, Lease and Permit” dated December 11, 2006.  You know, the TTF non-contract between Billy Abbate and Charley Griswell that everyone else in Clayton County made clear they didn’t consider valid, nor have any intention of honoring.

Next, you get the media to spin for you by talking up your big development plans of an upscale air park without bothering to mention to them the that it doesn’t (and likely won’t ever) have access to the runways.

Naturally, the FAA responds to the spin, this time to ALL airport owners in Georgia, by restating their general opposition to Through the Fence agreements.

By August of 2007, Abbate submitted a proposal to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) that claimed the project would have access to Tara Field.

But, but, wait. What? Yeah, that’s what Eldrin Bell said, too.

In a letter dated August 3, 2007, Chairman Bell wrote the ARC and promptly corrected Abbate’s proposal by explaining the events of December 12th in which the TTF was summarily rescinded, rejected, and voided. Apparently, Abbate’s ARC proposal must have include a copy of the non-existent TTF he signed with Charley Griswell.

Consequently, the ARC agreed with the FAA and Clayton County that building 480 homes next to a runway wasn’t a very good idea.

The interesting thing about Bell’s letter to the ARC is that in it he carbon copied then-Chairman Jason Harper of the Henry County Board of Commissioners, so all the pertinent players in Henry County should have made aware of the circumstance surrounding the rescinded TTF non-contract.

The reason that’s so funny is because, not only did Abbate include the bogus TTF agreement with his September 4, 2007 zoning request application to Henry County, but he directly relied on it in his hearing when he argued for rezoning in front of the Henry County Zoning Advisory Board (ZAB).

During his presentation to the ZAB on September 27, 2007 Abbate falsely stated:

The economic impact will be provided through a Through-the-Fence Agreement with Clayton County that was approved by the Clayton County Board of Commissioners September 2006. The terms of this agreement will provide the residents of this Big 5 development to have access to and use the airport property. It also grants three easements from the Big 5 property onto the Tara Field Property. This agreement has been executed by both parties and is recorded in Henry County in book 1079, page 195.

There was no September 2006 agreement with Clayton County. It was merely a resolution that was passed by CCBoC that agreed to negotiate a TTF with Abbate. It did NOT grant him access. Additionally, the document he filed with Henry County was the December 11th non-contract TTF that was properly rescinded. Although he did have the valid October 27, 2006 contract with Clayton County to lease airport property to build an FBO, he was trying to spin it to create the illusion that it was all one contract that also gave him the TTF easement access from his property:

The Through-the-Fence Agreement has a clause in it where they allow to build the FBO and then lease it back to the County. If they (Clayton County) choose not to participate in that portion of the Through-the-Fence Agreement; they must do that in order to retain the fuel revenue sales, 100% of the profits. If they elect not to do that, then we will put the FBO on our property which will require a small revision to the plan that we are presenting, but they would not get the fuel revenues.

Again, during the same hearing with the Henry Zoning Advisory Board, Billy Abbate stated (p.3):

“This development would affect two counties. Clayton County is the airport owner. There is a Through-the-Fence Agreement with Clayton County that has been recorded in Henry County.

Additionally,  when directly asked about the status of the TTF by District IV Zoning Board member member Rev. William Herndon, Abbate intentionally neglected to answer that part of the question. From the meeting minutes:

“William Herndon asked what the status today was with the Through the Fence Agreement with Clayton County, and if they were limited.

William Abbate stated there was a time constraint in the Through the Fence Agreement that stipulates they have to begin work within twelve (12) months of execution of the agreement.

William Herndon asked what the dated of the execution of the agreement was.

William Abbate stated it was December 11, 2006.

See how he did that? He never said what the status was of the TTF when directly asked but only addressed its “limitations”. Shame on him for lying to a Reverand.

Lastly, Zoning Board member Charles Mobley asked Abbate if the TTF agreement hinged on the FBO being built were Clayton County would retain all the tax revenue. Abbate rightly responded that it would not. That’s because the FBO lease and the TTF were two different things but he couldn’t let them to know that.

As a result, the Zoning Advisory Board relied heavily on Abbate’s claims about the TTF non-contract when they recommended approval of his rezoning request to the Board of Commissioners.

“The subject property is immediately adjacent to the Clayton County Airport and has the unique advantage of being able to serve those who use the Clayton County Airport due to a signed through-the-fence agreement with Clayton County.”

At a regular meeting held on November 6, 2007 of the Henry County Board of Commissioner in which they took up Abbate’s zoning request, he again falsely stated:

B5E’s “Thru-the-Fence Agreement” (TTF) with Clayton County was approved by UNANIMOUS vote of the Clayton County BOC in September 2006, and again by UNANIMOUS vote of the Clayton County BOC in December 2006.  …This agreement has been executed by both parties and has been recorded in Henry County (Book 10079, Page 195).

The motion to approved zoning from RA (Rural Agriculture) to PD (Planned Development) passed unanimously.

Billy and B.J. Sittin’ in a Tree…

Billy Abbate, at a minimum, had to have known that, even if he truly believed his December 11th TTF contract with Clayton County to be a binding contract, it would eventually be up to the courts to make that determination in light of the rescission letter that clearly indicated the contract would not be honored. He had to have known this matter was far from settled and that there was a chance – a good chance – that he really didn’t have legal access to Tara field from his development property.

But rather than go through all that trouble (yet) I guess he figured it would help to have a like-minded ally on his side.

By 2008 B.J. Mathis had declared her candidacy for Chairman of the Henry County Board of Commissioners. In her second quarter Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report $7,050 out of $21,300 – a full one third -of her campaign contributions came from medical professionals.

Keep in mind that, as shown on the first page of non-contract TTF he filed into the Henry County books, Billy Abbate’s primary business at the time was Quality Physician Services located at 1065 Jodeco Rd., Stockbridge, GA. He knew and dealt with many folks in the medical industry from Henry County. I’m just sayin’.

Under normal circumstances that may not seem like such a big deal except that on the same disclosure form, Mathis lists an expenditure for office space she rented for her campaign headquarters. The address, coincidentally, was 1065 Jodeco Rd., Stockbridge, GA.

And, in case you were wondering, the address listed in the current Henry County Tax records for the owner of the land located adjacent to Tara Field is Big 5 Enterprises of 1065 Jodeco Rd., Stockbridge, GA.

After she won the election, in August of 2009 Mathis tried to intervene by sending a letter to FAA about their objection to the TTF. In a scathing response, Scott Seritt, the FAA Southern Region District Airports Manger advised it was important that the FAA not usurp Clayton County’s role in the issue of compatible land use in vicinity of Tara Field, which tells me that’s exactly what Mathis was asking them to do. Seritt also advised that the FAA discourages Through the Fence agreements at public airports and opposes them when they involve residential components. They continue to oppose Abbate’s plan.

Also in August of 2009, Mathis contacted Clayton County announcing Henry County’s interest in purchasing Tara Field. They did not respond.

Here Comes The Judge(s)!

Now that Abbate had his zoning from Henry County, he must have been desperate to get the matter of the TTF settled once and for all. He knew it would be a huge risk to to begin building his condos and hangars without absolute assurances he would be able to provide access to the airport for his future tenants.

In an effort to force the issue, he filed suit against Clayton County in the 11th Circuit US District Court in Atlanta (US District Court Northern Georgia, Atlanta Division Civil Action 1:08-CV-3750-ODE Lovejoy Realty, LLC , Plaintiff, v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, Defendant) claiming they had violated his rights under the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In my haste to have records copied at the Clayton County Justice Complex, I inadvertently neglected to obtain a copy of the original complaint in this case. However, it was likely filed in late July or early August of 2009 as the Defendants Response was filed on August 24, 2009. Additionally, the previously mentioned August 10th letter from the FAA Scott Seritt indicated the matter the subject of litigation.

He lost.

On November 6, 2009 District Court Judge Orinda D. Evans ordered:

 The Court concludes that Resolution 2006-192 did not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations…  The Court holds that Defendants are entitled to judgment as matter of law that Defendants did not violate 42 USC 1983.

All of sudden, at that very moment the Judge signed this Order, there existed nowhere in the world an agreement from Clayton County that authorized Billy Abbate to access Tara Field from his property. The matter had been decided.

Still not to be one to take no for an answer, Abbate filed suit on November 24, 2009 in Clayton County Superior Court this time claiming breach of contract. (Civil Action No. 2009CV04893-6, Lovejoy Realty, LLC; Big 5 Enterprises, LLC, Plaintiffs vs. Clayton County, Georgia; Eldrin Bell, in his official capacity as Chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, Defendant). Abbate also filed a Partial Motion for Summary Judgment on April 23, 2010.

Once again, Chairman Bell filed Cross Motion for Summary Judgment asking to have the case thrown out citing the rescission events of December 12, 2006 and a number of other reasons, including that Abbate’s TTF did not attach a discernible description of the easments. The Judge agreed.

Abbate lost. Again.

On May 25, 2011, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah C. Benefield ordered:

Therefore this court FINDS the Through the  Fence agreement in the instant case does not disclose with sufficient certainty the intentions of the parties with respect to the quantity and location of the easment.

Therefore this court FINDS that even though the Through the Fence agreement was approved by the Clayton County Board of Commissioners at the December 11, 2006 meeting and assented to by the parties, it does not contain a valid description if the property to be conveyed. For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment is DENIED. The defendants’ Cross-Motion for Summary Judgement is GRANTED.

So, although the TTF contract was found to be fatal for a different reason than what Eldrin Bell initially claimed, all in all it took a court to make that determination. Abbate had no authority to decide its validity on his own and simply pretend it was a valid contract in his dealings with Henry County’s Zoning Advisory Board, The Board of Commissioners, and the Atlanta Regional Commission. Had he done the proper thing and taken the matter to court FIRST it is likely the land never would have passed muster for rezoning.

The Movie Studio Stimulus Package

By March 2010, Abbate and Big 5 had already lost his first court case but he’d also already built six airplane hangars on his property that were useless without a TFF agreement. So, he decided to turn them into movie sound stages instead.

But to do this he needed the Henry County BoC to approve a credit enhancement for an Industrial Revenue Bond to build additional facilities for film productions. Basically, he was asking the taxpayers of Henry county to guarantee a $38 million loan so he could get a lower interest rate.

When the Henry BoC met on June 15, 2010, Bally Abbate AGAIN deflected the issue of the TTF when asked about it by Commissioner Reid Bowman:

Commissioner Bowman stated he wanted to understand that the property has perpetual deed access to Tara Field and upon completion of all phase it will consist of 900,000 square feet of FAA compliant aircraft hangars and a new state of the art 21,000 square foot fixed base operator. Does this take into account the existing six hangars? Mr. Abbate stated it did not take into account those existing six hangars, that’s new construction that is being referred to.

See how he did that again? By only responding about the plans for the hangars, he continued to allow Commissioner Bowman to believe he had access to the airport from his property when, in fact, the exact opposite was true.

At that very moment Commissioner Bowman asked about the “perpetual deed access tot Tara Field” (TTF), a US District Court Judge had already told Abbate “that Resolution 2006-192 did not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations…” and that his Constitutional rights under the Contract Clause had not been violated by Clayton County. The Courts ruling meant no valid TTF contract existed that gave him access to Tara Field. The mere fact that he had pending litigation in Clayton County Superior Court was a moot point because, even if he had eventually won, it would have reinstated the contract that was invalidated by the District Court.

As a result,  the Board voted to put the taxpayers on the hook for his movie studios.

Commissioner Roark made the motion to approve the intent of the Commissioners to support the creation of a Development Agreement with Big 5 Enterprises, LLC; Commissioner Bowman seconded. The motion carried 5-0-0.

Up until yesterday, that was the last I’d heard about the movie studio stimulus package passed by the HCBoC. But apparently, according to fellow Henry County blogger over at The Hack Line, Charles Mobley (formerly of the HCZAB mentioned previously), the whole deal fell through because Abbate couldn’t come up with the $15 million letter of credit which was required by the Resolution passed on June 15th.

So, now he’s got empty hangars with no access to the airport and no movie studios.

The ONLY way left for him to stop his financial bleeding is if Henry County purchases Tara Field, which they just did TODAY.

The Cost of Expanding

Now that Henry County owns Tara Field, there will inevitably be huge costs to its taxpaying owners for upwards of 5-10 years in order to fulfill the state’s plans to upgrade the airport.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Georgia Aviation System Plan the improvements to Tara Field will, among other things, require the runway to be extended and a precision landing system installed in order for aircraft to be able to land at night and in bad weather.

Some of the money for these projects will come from the Federal and State governments, but the county will also be required over the next 5-10 years to pony up for these improvements to the tune of millions of dollars .

Clayton County had estimated these costs when it submitted to the GDOT their annually-required 5 year plan called an Airport Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) in 2010.

For the period between 2011 and 2016, Clayton County estimated they would need to spend nearly $10 MILLION. The actual estimate was $9,848,826.09 to be exact.

Keep in mind that the very first thing B.J. Mathis is going to do now that she finally has her grubby hands on Tara Field, will be to issue an Through the Fence agreement to Billy Abbate and the other four sons-of-bitches at Big 5 Enterprises, LLC. Who the hell are they anyway. Does anyone know?

Then, also keep in mind that the FAA warned Clayton County on THREE separate occasions that if they had agreed to give him that access, they would be in violation of grant assurances which would result in suspending any federal funding for Tara Field.

Going back the the Capital Improvements Plan, the amount the federal government is estimated to pony up over the next five years is in excess of $30 MILLION. Who do you think is going to have to pay that if the federal government refuses to?

Yeah, that’s right. YOU.

So, even though today’s announcement claims “Those recommended improvements, which will be funded almost entirely (97.5%) by GDOT and the FAA”, that could very well be subject to change when B.J. Mathis issues a Through the Fence agreement to Billy Abbate and Big 5 Enterprises.

Nowhere have I been able to find ANY public records of Henry County BoC’s discussions in the purchase of Tara Field. Each time the matter has been brought up by the HCBoC, it has been behind closed doors in Executive Session out of the view of the taxpayers who are being forced to foot the bill for this blatant cronyism and corporate welfare.

Shame on B.J Mathis and any of the other Commissioners who allowed Billy Abbate to mislead EVERYONE for five years and then make the hard-working people of Henry County pay for his poor decisions.

I intend to keep on this matter and expose those Commissioners who voted to enslave the citizens of Henry County to Billy Abbate and and the other four political thugs at Big 5 Enterprises.

*Full disclosure: I am an employee of the Federal Aviation Administrion, however, no federal resources AT ALL were utilized in the research or writing of this article. All records contained herein are public documents I acquired from the Clayton County Justice Complex and from online sources.