A rendering of the re-worked parking deck at Nashville International Airport Credit: MNAA photo

It was business as usual at Nashville International Airport today during a busy and long holiday weekend. But a few miles away at the Metro Courthouse, a fight was gearing up both in the courtroom and at the Metro Council over the facility’s future.

On one side, you have a slate of Metro Nashville Airport Authority board members newly appointed by Gov. Bill Lee. In April, the General Assembly passed a law that effectively took the airport from Metro, with bill sponsor Sen. Paul Bailey (R-Sparta) saying that because 70 percent of the passengers came from outside of Davidson County, NIA is essentially a regional asset and the state should control its future. 

On the other side is the former board, appointed by Mayor John Cooper and still claiming to be the rightful authority. Metro Legal filed suit in Chancery Court in June, saying that the law, which only affects Nashville, is an unconstitutional exercise of state power and should be struck down.

In the middle of these opposing boards is the Federal Aviation Authority, which has regulatory power over the airport and has refused to recognize the authority of the state’s board until the courts settle the dispute. In a June 27 letter, the FAA said it will wait for a court ruling and instead deal with the old board.

Metro Legal filed a 50-page memorandum late on Friday asking for a temporary injunction against the state. Included in the exhibits with the request were declarations from experts who said that the lack of clarity over who’s actually in control of the airport has both short-term and long-term implications. 

“This jeopardizes MNAA’s eligibility to receive airport funding from the FAA, including infrastructure grants, until the dispute is resolved,” declared Kirk Shaffer, a former high-ranking official at both MNAA and the FAA. “To place this substantial risk in perspective, over the past five years alone, MNAA has received over $70 million dollars in FAA infrastructure grants from the Airport Improvement Program and other funding sources administered by the FAA. Plus, MNAA has received almost $142 million in additional funding at the behest of the FAA in that period.”

Declarations from Shaffer and Bill Bradley, former state budget director, argued that the court should step in to avoid financial harm to the airport.

In the lawsuit, Metro claims that the law violates home rule, as the legislation singles out only Nashville to have its board seized by the state. 

“The state legislators supporting the Act’s passage identified no harms, irreparable or otherwise, that would befall the State if the new board is not seated on July 1, 2023, and no such harm is readily discernible,” the memorandum argued. “Even if the Act were ultimately found constitutional, the State will suffer no harm in waiting to implement it.”

A three-judge panel was appointed to hear the case. Unlike previous cases with constitutional issues where either chancellors or circuit judges were appointed, a criminal judge was appointed in this case. The two others joining Chancellor Anne Martin are Mark Hayes, a circuit court judge from Dyersberg, and Zachary Walden, a criminal court judge from Jacksboro. Hayes was an attorney in private practice for 40 years before his appointment in December 2021. Walden was admitted to the bar 2016 and became a criminal judge less than a year ago after serving as the Chair of the Campbell County Republican Party.

Meanwhile, District 13 Councilmember Russ Bradford told the Banner on Monday that he would withdraw or indefinitely defer legislation in the Metro Council that would approve a critical piece of infrastructure for the ongoing construction at the Airport. Bill BL2023-2030 approves a deal between Metro Water and the airport authority for a new 24-inch water main at a cost of more than $130,000 to Metro. By pulling the bill, it could effectively halt some construction for months.

“I reached out to Metro Legal,” said Bradford, whose district includes the airport. “Until we hear from the courts, we should not be moving any legislation through.”

Bradford said he is concerned about the eminent domain provisions in the legislation as well. At a town hall meeting with an airport representative a couple of weeks ago, he said community members got unsatisfactory answers about constructing a new North-South runway.

“We already have two appointees who don’t live in Davidson County and they’ll be making decisions about people who live near the airport. Homes will be negatively impacted by people who don’t live here, who don’t care about this community,” Bradford said.

The lawsuit is precisely the kind of Metro vs. state issue that has been a topic on the mayoral campaign trail. Heidi Campbell, Jim Gingrich, Sharon Hurt, Vivian Wilhoite and Matt Wiltshire all told the Banner that they support the litigation. Alice Rolli said she would not pursue the lawsuit. Jeff Yarbro and Freddie O’Connell did not respond before publication.

Update, July 4, 11 a.m.: O’Connell would support litigation against the takeover.

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...