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Letter:Airport Authority Gets Into Business

To the Editor:

Since its creation in 1986, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (“MWAA”) has been forbidden by federal law from building for-profit commercial developments on the 3,000 acres of property at Dulles Airport that it leases from the U.S. Government. It has been limited to using the Dulles property for airport purposes, e.g. runways and hangers. That all changed on Feb. 14, 2012. On that day, President Obama signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“2012 FAA Act”). Hidden in the middle of this 150 page omnibus act dealing with all manner of subjects was a one sentence revision to the 1986 federal act that created MWAA. Henceforth, MWAA would be allowed to commercially develop Dulles Airport.

Here is why we as Fairfax County taxpayers should be concerned about MWAA’s venture into private commercial development and what we can do about it.

MWAA is tax-exempt under both Virginia and federal law and thus can unfairly compete with private landowners. MWAA does not pay state or federal income taxes, county business license taxes, or county real estate taxes. Any businesses that locate on the Dulles Airport property won’t be part of a special Phase II tax district and won’t pay a dime toward defraying the cost of building the Metro Silver Line. As if that isn’t enough, MWAA is not subject to county zoning laws and has no incentive to offer “proffers” which are voluntary agreements by a landowner to go above and beyond what zoning laws require, e.g. planting additional trees in a development. What private landowner can hope to compete with this type of unfair advantage?

There is a limited amount of commercial development that is economically feasible at this point in time, especially with sequestration strangling businesses in Northern Virginia. This is not the time for MWAA, a quasi-federal agency sitting on land leased to it by the federal government, to crowd out private landowners who want to attract businesses to their properties. Incidentally, MWAA’s development rights extend to “air rights” above the Dulles Access Road. In 2011, MWAA studied the feasibility of building commercial projects above the new Metro stops on the Silver Line and had a report issued concerning the pros and cons of such a project.

I live in Herndon where we have great plans to attract businesses to develop property next to the Herndon Metro stop along the new Silver Line. Those businesses will be a significant source of revenue for the town. We won’t get that development if businesses decide it’s easier to locate a few miles down the road to undeveloped federal land run by a tax-exempt entity. Keep in mind, development at Dulles won’t add to commercial development in Fairfax County. Such a development will merely transfer businesses from Fairfax County to the Dulles Airport property.

What can we do?

The 2012 FAA Act merely allows MWAA’s lease with the federal government to be amended to permit commercial development. The lease amendment hasn’t been signed yet. It is sitting on the secretary of transportation’s desk. We can ask our elected representatives in Congress to request that regulations be issued under the 2012 FAA Act to give some guidance to the secretary of transportation as to what types of commercial development should be allowed at Dulles. Presently, the 2012 FAA Act has vague language that states the secretary can approve any “business or activity not inconsistent with the needs of aviation.” We can’t leave such significant decisions to the unfettered whim of an unelected official. Regulations can provide guidelines as to what is acceptable.

We can call upon Governor McDonnell not to agree to the lease amendment until Virginia citizens are given a right to voice their concerns. Previous lease amendments were signed by the governor of Virginia. I presume the governor must sign this lease amendment also. Virginia has the right to object to this plan because we created MWAA, along with the federal government and the District of Columbia, and we can un-create it, so to speak. Virginia also granted MWAA a special exemption from state income tax. See Virginia Code Sec. 5.1-172. If that doesn’t give us a right to have some say in MWAA’s for-profit commercial development enterprise, then nothing does.

We could use the backing of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in our request to Governor McDonnell. At a March 12, 2013, Town Hall Meeting in Great Falls, Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust said that the supervisors had just recently found out about this matter and little could be done because it was a federal issue. Mr. Foust may have just found out, but Hunter Mill Supervisor Catherine Hudgins was provided a copy of the 2011 MWAA feasibility study so she surely has known about MWAA’s intentions for quite some time. We need to convince the Board of Supervisors to take a more assertive approach in this matter.

We have the power to act. The time is now.

Dave Webster

Herndon