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Land swap at airports draws fire

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Borough President Helen Marshall and several other Queens officials oppose a proposed land swap deal championed by Mayor Bloomberg that would give ownership of the land under LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports to the Port Authority.

State Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik (D-Flushing) submitted a bill Monday to block any transfer of airport land to the Port Authority, which in exchange would give control of the World Trade Center site to the city.

Visits by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Queens legislative events have prompted a public airing of opinions on the merits of the potential deal, which has returned to the spotlight after the mayor announced earlier this month that an agreement was actively being pursued.

Borough President Helen Marshall, speaking during a legislative breakfast in Little Neck Sunday, said she opposes the deal because Queens would have no control over what happens at the city's two airports.

"The land under our airports is very important to Queens," she said. The only reason the borough has been successful in fighting expansion attempts at LaGuardia Airport into Flushing Bay is because it owns the land, Marshall said.

She said any exchange would endanger the borough's ability to fight state plans for the airports, which fall under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), whose district includes LaGuardia Airport and Flushing Bay, said New York City has little impact on Port Authority decisions at this point and would lose any influence it has if the deal proceeds.

"I am unalterably opposed. I have grave misgivings about selling the land under the airports," she said in an interview. "The airports and health services are the two largest employers in Queens. They're something we ought to protect."

Stavisky said Port Authority officials have tried to add more runways or lengthen existing ones at LaGuardia into Flushing Bay. She said the local community was able to fight the expansion and instead focus on cleanup of the bay and nearby Flushing River because Queens owns title to the land.

Kennedy and LaGuardia airports occupy 5,610 acres in Queens County and together provide more than 225,000 jobs in the city, according to state Grodenchik (D-Flushing).

Grodenchik called the possible land swap bad public policy.

Stavisky said the Port Authority paid the city $13 million to lease the two airport sites in 2001 but only $3 million in 2002.

She said the two airports generate more than $153 million in annual revenues.

Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton told Bloomberg at a breakfast meeting in Howard Beach March 26 she wants a deal finalized so the area can go ahead with business contracts in adjacent neighborhoods.

Braton said she is concerned about the high level of unemployment in the communities surrounding JFK, which include Jamaica, Howard Beach and South Ozone Park. She said because the city has yet to agree with the state on a deal to swap the land, businesses have been reluctant to move to the area.

"It is hard to get funding for a project when something like this deal is in flux," she said. "The airports are the mainstay of our economy and the trickle-down effect on what's going on in the airline industry could affect Queens."

Bloomberg, who is in favor of the deal, said the city is now in active negotiations with the Port Authority on the land swap.

At the breakfast, which drew a crowd of more than 200 people, Bloomberg said the lease for the land under the two airports is coming due in 2015. He said he hoped to facilitate the long-discussed land exchange so the city could have a larger role in the future of Queens' two airports while owning and then rebuilding the 16-acre World Trade Center site.

"Today we have no say as to what goes on at JFK and LaGuardia airports," Bloomberg said. He said the city is getting short-changed by the current lease of the land under JFK because the state only pays $3 million a year when city estimates show it is worth at least $90 million.

Bloomberg said by swapping the land, he hopes to get more money for the city, which would collect tax revenues from the World Trade Center site when it is redeveloped. The city cannot get tax funds from the site now because it is tax-exempt, Bloomberg said.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156

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