The owners of Cook Airfield are urging pilots, parachuting enthusiasts and others to boycott Derby businesses after the city filed a lawsuit challenging a road closure that benefits the small airport near Rose Hill.
Greg Thomas, co-owner of Cook Airfield, said his beef is with Derby city leaders, but "those businesses are the ones that put those people there. If they're going to elect an anti-business city council, I don't want our folks using their businesses."
Derby is challenging Sedgwick County's recent decision to close a portion of 71st Street South between 127th and 143rd Streets East and approve a conditional-use permit to extend the runway at the airport.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to close the road.
Gwen Welshimer, who voted in support of the closing, received $500 campaign contributions — the maximum allowed by law — each from Thomas and partner Steve Logue on the same day the board voted, July 21. Welshimer said the donations had no bearing on her vote.
Thomas said he and Logue dropped off their donations after the meeting that day, handing them to an administrative assistant to commissioners.
"We planned on giving her a campaign contribution way before all this started," Thomas said Tuesday.
Thomas, a Republican, said he would have made donations to Derby Mayor Dion Avello and Derby City Council member Chuck Warren, who both ran for another seat on the commission, if "they had been pro-aviation."
Welshimer, a Democrat, said she urged Logue and Thomas not to contribute to her campaign until after the vote.
She said she voted for the road closure because the opposition's arguments were not as strong as those who were in favor.
Welshimer said she likes what Cook Airfield is doing to promote the growth and future of aviation.
'Burden of proof'?
Thomas said he and Logue are moving ahead with their plans to extend the runway and develop the property despite Derby's opposition.
Derby City Manager Kathy Sexton said, "our basic concern is that the county commission did not appear to have met the requirement of the state law to show that there's no loss to the public sector or to private owners by closing a road. It didn't meet that burden of proof."
The airport issued a call on its website, www.cookairfield.com, to avoid doing business in Derby.
"Due to the City of Derby's most recent effort to stop our growth . . . we ask as much as practical you take all business to the other surrounding communities. Rose Hill offers numerous places to eat. Both Andover and Wichita offer hotels within 15 minutes. We are working out the details to have rental cars delivered from Wichita."
"WHAT A SHAME IN THE AIR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!!" the website also says.
It also features a photograph of Logue and Thomas with Welshimer, saying "the next plan is to get Gwen re-elected!"
A 'close call'
Commissioners Kelly Parks and Karl Peterjohn voted with Welshimer to close the road. Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh voted against it, saying the airport could be developed without inconveniencing people by closing the road.
Peterjohn said Tuesday the decision was difficult.
"The testimony in my mind was compelling that this would be a significant improvement," he said of extending the runway. "But it was a close call. Rose Hill was supporting it; Derby was against it. I tried to maintain an open mind at the meeting."
Unruh said Tuesday that he voted against closing the road because "we essentially are giving away private property for public use."
The county has done that in the past, he said, but typically "we do that with a business plan and can calculate a rate of return."
"I think closing section-line roads is just not a practice we should get into," Unruh said.
Thomas and Logue said in July that closing the road would allow the small airport to have a longer runway and attract larger planes and other development.
After voting to close the road, commissioners unanimously approved a zoning change to a plot of land south of the airfield. Logue and Thomas said they plan to develop 18 residential lots, as well as extend their runway, on the plot that the airport owns. They said other possible developments include a trade school and an aircraft service center.
No trial dates have been set, a county spokeswoman said. The county has filed a motion to dismiss Derby's lawsuit about the conditional-use permit as premature. A motion hearing is set for Friday.
Sexton said Derby has asked that the two matters be considered together.