An Erie development firm has filed a lawsuit against the Erie Regional Airport Authority for failing to sell land it had agreed to sell on Wilkins Road, west of Erie International Airport.
The lawsuit by NLA IV Real Estate Holdings was filed in the Erie County Court of Common Pleas on May 26. The suit asks the court to order the authority to proceed with the property sale and pay the developer’s legal costs in the case or, alternately, to order the authority to pay NLA more than $50,000 for engineering, permits and other development costs incurred, plus legal costs.
At issue is a 20.6-acre parcel of vacant land on the east side of Wilkins Road that was offered for sale by the airport in 2020. In November of that year, the Erie Regional Airport Authority approved a resolution to sell the “Orchard Park” property, where the Orchard Park Estates mobile home park previously was located.
The authority entered into a purchase agreement with NLA on May 18, 2021. The sale price was set at $400,000.
FAA steps in
The Federal Aviation Administration in July notified the Airport Authority’s legal counsel that the Wilkins Road property “must not be used for residential purposes.”
NLA plans to build duplexes and townhomes on the site.
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FAA guidelines prohibit residential development of the property to prevent the need to remove homes found to be “incompatible with airport operations” in the future. A federal grant in 2001 provided $3.5 million to buy Orchard Park Estates and relocate its 41 tenants from the Wilkins Road property, then located in the airport’s noise abatement area.
“Though the 20.6 acres in question is not currently within the (noise abatement area) if FAA were to allow residential development here and the subject property were to once again be found to be incompatible with airport operations … (Erie Regional Airport Authority) may be forced to take action to remove the residential development,” Rick Harner, manager of the FAA Airports District Office in Harrisburg, said in his July notification to the authority.
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“Moreover, since FAA has already funded the acquisition of this land for noise compatibility purposes, we find the possibility that ERAA may have to once again displace a residential community in this location to be contrary to the original intent of the federal grant, and therefore unacceptable,” Harner said.
The Erie Regional Airport Authority subsequently notified the developer that it cannot legally proceed with the property sale, according to a Sept. 28 report to the FAA by Timothy Zieziula, a real estate lawyer representing the authority.
The FAA provided Zieziula’s email to Wilkins Road residents opposing the property sale. Residents shared the email with the Erie Times-News.
The development plans
NLA plans to build six ranch-style duplexes and 116 six-unit townhomes on the property, according to the land development plan approved by Millcreek Township supervisors in September.
Supervisors had previously rezoned the property to accommodate high-density residential development.
The ranch homes were to be built closest to neighboring single-family homes on Wilkins Road. Townhomes were to be built behind them, according to the development plan.
Guy Euliano of NLA told township supervisors that the ranch homes were expected to rent for $1,300 to $1,400 monthly and that townhome rental would be $1,100 to $1,200.
The court case
The purchase agreement for the Wilkins Road property was contingent on NLA obtaining all necessary permits and approvals for the development from Millcreek Township prior to Oct. 29, the date set for the sale closing. NLA did that and notified the property owner that it had met its obligation, according to the lawsuit.
NLA and the Erie Regional Airport Authority agreed to waive the mediation process provided as an option in the purchase agreement to resolve any disputes.
The NLA lawsuit asks the court to order “specific performance” of the contracted purchase agreement, meaning the Airport Authority would be required to sell the property as agreed.
“A court may order specific performance of a contract to sell land when the agreement is complete and certain, where no adequate remedy of loss exists, and the seller has violated the terms of the sale agreement,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit maintains that no adequate remedy of loss exists because the Wilkins Road property is unique “in that it represents a significantly large tract of vacant land situated in a prime location in Millcreek Township, Erie County, such that its equivalent cannot be purchased elsewhere on the Open Market.”
As an alternative to a specific performance sale order, the lawsuit asks the court to require the Airport Authority to pay NLA more than $50,000 for time and expenses incurred for surveying, engineering, architectural and permit fees, materials purchased for construction and other costs, as well as legal feels and lost rental profits.
The Erie Regional Airport Authority has not yet responded to the complaint.