Collier commissioners seek compromise with controversial airport tenant

Fletcher Flying Service owner Steve Fletcher turns on a pump to fill his crop dusting plane with pesticides as he runs his business from the Immokalee Regional Airport on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, in Immokalee. Fletcher has run his crop spraying and firefighting business from the airport for more than 30 years.  David Albers/Staff

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Fletcher Flying Service owner Steve Fletcher turns on a pump to fill his crop dusting plane with pesticides as he runs his business from the Immokalee Regional Airport on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, in Immokalee. Fletcher has run his crop spraying and firefighting business from the airport for more than 30 years. David Albers/Staff

— Calling for compromise, Collier County commissioners voted to have Commissioner Tom Henning and county staff work with a controversial Immokalee airport tenant who wants a long-term lease.

Steve Fletcher, the owner of Fletcher’s Flying Service, is on a month-to-month lease at the airport. Airport officials have denied him a long-term lease due to concerns about his safety practices.

“We need to be business friendly and we need to start with the businesses we have in Collier County, especially the ones we have providing services to landowners and those who lease land,” Henning said. “I am committed to working this out. Hopefully, this will resolve the issue of this lawsuit.”

Commissioner Fred Coyle voted against the lease. He said he supports compromise, but has concerns about potential conflicts and liabilities with a 10-year lease proposed by Commissioner Georgia Hiller.

That came after Airport Authority Executive Director Chris Curry said if they gave Fletcher a special lease, they could violate their grant assurances with the Federal Aviation Authority. They could then be forced to pay that grant money back.

Fletcher, who sued the county over “harassment” at the hands of Curry and Immokalee Airport Manager Tom Vergo, has been looking for a long-term lease for some time. He is the airport’s largest fuel purchaser.

Hiller’s proposed 10-year lease would, among other things, give Fletcher’s customers access to the airport without escort, allow Fletcher’s planes to land in designated grassed areas, and allow Fletcher to “hot fuel” his planes, meaning he can fuel them while they’re running.

But Curry found issues with those requests. Among his concerns:

■ Fletcher was asked to escort people to his business because it is physically within a secure portion of the airport. Also, an unescorted fuel tanker heading to Fletcher’s business once came close to an aircraft, almost hitting it, Curry said.

■ Hot fueling is not approved by the airport’s rules and regulations, which have been in place since 2002. Fletcher was allowed to hot fuel when he was doing public safety work, provided he give the airport a plan, which he did not do.

■ The airport does not have a designated area for planes to land on the grass.

Several commissioners said they hoped the lease would resolve the issues between Fletcher and the airport, which have been ongoing for nearly two years, During that time Fletcher has been accused of landing his planes on the grass, leaving them running unattended and giving Hiller and then-commission candidate Tim Nance an unapproved tour of the airport.

In March 2012, Fletcher sued Curry and Vergo seeking a permanent injunction that “seeks to restrain” the two men from “harassing, abusing, injuring or otherwise violating” Fletcher’s rights. That suit is pending in court.

The FAA has not taken action on Curry’s complaints against Fletcher.

Kelly Reagan, Fletcher’s attorney, said his client wants to continue being a productive member of the airport.

“If there was a proposal to set up a group to meet and resolve these issues, he would be open to that,” he said. “He wants to conduct his business in a reasonable way consistent with the rules and regulations of the airport.”

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