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Middletown approves disputed move of airport’s skydiving landing zone

Following a presentation at Tuesday’s virtual meeting by Acting City Manager Susan Cohen, a majority of council members gave their approval to relocate the drop zone away from the current area adjacent to the main runway to the northwest section of the Middletown Regional Airport property.

John Hart II, a co-owner of Start Aviation/Start Skydiving, said he was unhappy with the move and was not consulted before the recommendation was made.

“This decision has been painted as trying to remove (Start) Skydiving from the airport. That is not the case, nor has it ever been,” Cohen said. “This is a matter about utilizing the airport as an asset for the entire community and development interests. There is enough land in this asset to work with everyone and develop a community airport that provides recreational opportunities, retail opportunities and complex aviation opportunities.”

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The decision to move the drop zone has been a major delay in moving forward in updating the master plan that is required periodically by the Federal Aviation Administration. The city has a 2017 agreement with the FAA to update its airport master and airport layout plans and is periodically required for federal funding. These plans require the drop zone to be mapped out. The last two airport layout plans were filed with the FAA in 2002 and in 2010, according to city records.

Cohen’s presentation was a continuation of a discussion Feb. 1 during council’s planning retreat. At that time, council asked for additional information and eliminated Smith Park being used as a drop zone.

“My understanding in taking over the city manager’s job temporarily is that the mandate from council has always been to use the airport as a driver of economic development and use it as an asset for the city,” Cohen said. “This includes appropriating space at the airport for all activities appropriate and in the safest possible.”

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Since February, she said the city has reached out to users including Start Skydiving, consultants and officials about the possible change. FAA and the U.S. Parachuting Association standards were also reviewed. During the meeting several letters from citizens and airport users were read into the record.

The proposed site in the northwest section of the airport was also recommended by city staff, the Airport Commission, Airport Manager Dan Dickten and Quadrex Consulting.

Council members Talbott Moon, Ami Vitori and Monica Nenni spoke in support of the option. Vice Mayor Joe Mulligan did not offer comment. Mayor Nicole Condrey was unable to weigh-in due to a Feb. 7, 2020 Ohio Ethics Commission advisory opinion prohibiting her participation airport discussions or votes due to her relationship with Start Skydiving.

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Later in the meeting, Condrey said she was no longer employed as general manager of Start Skydiving and has “no intentions for re-employment with them.”

The relocation of the drop zone as well as ongoing hangar lease issues have been points of contention between the city and Start Skydiving/Start Aviation for the last few years. However, no agreement has been reached in the dispute. Last July, the city canceled its fixed-base operator contract with Start Aviation and the city took over operations on Jan. 1.

The city has allowed Start Aviation to operate out of the FBO office/hangar until the lease issues get resolved, forcing the city to operate its FBO office out of a construction trailer. Recently, city officials attempted to have an agreement to share the current FBO office that Start Aviation still occupies.

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Hart II said the city was downplaying the downwind leg at the airport that could “exponentially” increase the percentage for unavoidable collisions.

Start Skydiving had planned a town hall meeting to discuss the safety and other airport issues on March 16, but it was cancelled due to the coronavirus. Hart said he was not consulted by the city or the city Airport Commission before the recommendation was made.

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He said the new location will cause a major interruption that may result in losing half of Start Skydiving’s business because of the distance skydivers will have carry their gear back to the hangar on the other side of the runway or the company will have to purchase a truck or bus to transport them back. Hart said this will increase the time of getting skydivers into the air from three to five minutes to up to 20 minutes.

Hart plans to appeal the matter to the FAA and will seek a full safety audit of the airport claiming the city is violating the FAA’s grant assurance act which requires airports receiving federal funding to open the facility to all types of aviation, including skydiving.

“I’m so frustrated,” Hart said. “It’s so unethical and unprofessional. They never consulted us about alternatives. Why not talk to us?”

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