Million Air expansion bid for private jets at Westchester County Airport hits turbulence
The fight over Westchester County Airport expansion has resurfaced at the airport’s southern entrance, where private jets owned by corporations and well-to-do suburbanites get garaged in heated hangars.
The aptly named company, Million Air, which opened a new hangar in 2019, wants to build a second one nearby in a plan boosted by Westchester business leaders.
The new $60 million facility would provide almost two acres of heated floor space for the jets that corporate executives fly on business trips or for those looking to get away on a family holiday without the fuss of flying commercial.
The hangar proposal, made in late 2017 just days before Westchester County Executive George Latimer took office, was promptly rejected by his administration two weeks after he was sworn in.
But hope has reemerged this spring, with Million Air CEO Roger Woolsey pitching the deal to the county’s Airport Advisory Board in March, and the Business Council of Westchester lobbying county legislators to win their support.
The debate over Million Air’s second hangar concerns the southern side of the airport, far across the tarmac from the commercial terminal that serves planes flown by Delta, Jet Blue, United and American.
You enter the airport’s south side from Purchase Street, not far from the Quaker Meeting House. There, the airport’s fixed-base operators, such as Million Air, Ross Aviation, and Signature have long-term leases with the county, serving the private aircraft community. Those flyers include weekend warriors who go on short jaunts in their tiny Cessna 172s as well as corporate chieftains who fly their sparkling Gulfstream G650s that cost as much as $65 million.
The CEOs want their prized jets parked indoors overnight.
As Latimer gears up for the campaign for a second term, Woolsey has grown weary of the delays. That comes despite Woolsey’s contention that tearing down a vacant 24,000-square foot hangar and replacing it with one three times as large will actually reduce air traffic, cut nettlesome noise from the sky, and curb the risk of water pollution in the nearby Kensico Reservoir from toxic run-off.
There would be less traffic, says Woolsey, because many of the private jets that fly from Million Air are parked at airfields in Connecticut or New Jersey. That means they have to fly to Westchester to pick up their passengers, and then take off once more after the customers fly back home.
“I’m finally at the point, where I’m a little bit behind the scenes, nudging a little harder, it’s like, guys, c’mon, let’s get this thing out there,” said Woolsey, whose company has 33 private jet facilities at airports across the U.S. and around the world. “Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of the one house that makes a thousand phone calls a month crying foul. Stand up to them and educate. In my mind, that’s what leadership is.”
Westchester in no rush
Latimer, though, is in no particular hurry to pave the way for an expansion of hangar space for private jets at the airport. After all, he voted for a 2003 resolution while serving on the Board of Legislators that limited airport development to its then-physical capacity. That policy has not been repealed.
He also ousted two-term incumbent Rob Astorino in 2017, in part over the Mount Pleasant Republican’s unpopular plan to privatize the county airport.
Latimer last week ordered County Attorney John Nonna to halt work on an amended lease for Million Air, saying nothing would move forward until Million Air completed a storm water management plan linked to the first hangar that was to prevent run-off from Million Air’s 22 acres from flowing into the nearby Kensico Reservoir. That’s the drinking water supply for millions in New York City and Westchester.
Once that’s complete, then Latimer said the public review could ensue.
“It’s obvious to me that we’ll need a public debate before we decide to do it,” Latimer said. “There are people who believe anything we do is expansion, and we need to discuss it.”
Woolsey told Tax Watch he has re-engineered the storm water plan, at the cost of $3 million, and expects to have it completed this summer.
Certain to join the upcoming public debate is the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion, whose members include the Sierra Club, Purchase Environmental Protective Association, Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, and homeowner associations at the nearby Belle Fair and Doral Greens condominiums.
“We are against expansion of any kind,” said Coalition Chair George Klein. “The most harmful kind is expansion is air traffic, and more hangar space enables that.”
County Legislator Nancy Barr, D-Rye Brook, remains unconvinced by Woolsey’s contention that building a state-of-the art hangar for a slew of private jets will reduce air traffic.
“They might reduce some flights, but what about the other flights that could be added,” she said. “What about all the new flights originating from Westchester that were never at Westchester.”
Million Air’s hangar and terminal were conceived during Astorino’s tenure at a time when Astorino eyed massive upfront payments from his privatization plan to balance the county budget instead of raising property taxes.
Woolsey said the second hangar was part of his original plan pitched to Astorino in the mid-2010s, when the county administration was bullish on the airport’s future. But it was dropped from the 30-year lease for 22 acres and several airport buildings when it came time to conduct an environmental review of the project, and present it to the county Board of Legislators for approval.
Now in the lease’s fifth year, Million Air pays the county $725,000 a year in rent, according to the agreement. But Million Air pays no property taxes to the town or Harrison, the county or the Harrison schools.
Catering to the wealthier communities
Million Air seemed to spare no expense at its Westchester terminal, which Million Air General Manager Lauren Rones-Payne said was designed to appeal to customers living in some of Westchester and Fairfield counties’ wealthiest communities, such as Greenwich, Rye, Purchase.
“We wanted this to be their home away from home,” she said. “We wanted to set their minds at ease.”
Walk into the terminal, and you’re greeted by a barista, ready to whip up your favorite specialty coffee drink. Sit in a plump leather couch by one of its six fireplaces, with dramatic granite facades soaring from floor to ceiling. Convene a meeting in a glassed-in room looking out on the tarmac, or tune up your golf game by teeing off at the second-floor simulator.
“This captures the true feel of the area,” said Rones-Payne as she walked through the terminal’s Great Room. “It’s a wonderful place for a family to have lunch. They can take care of their children and walk their dogs before the flight.”
John Ravitz, executive vice president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester, has led the lobbying effort. He said it’s time for the county to back Woolsey’s expansion plans, with its promise of high-paying new jobs, and an upgrade for the corporations that fly their executives on private planes.
“I appreciate that Roger and Million Air haven’t given up,” said Ravitz. “He sees how important it is for the county. He’s staying focused. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
The issue blew up in late April, when Deborah Porder, of Scarsdale, a retired attorney who once worked in the Westchester County Attorney’s office, heard that the office of County Attorney John Nonna was reviewing issues involved in an amended lease, which could eventually be presented to the county Board of Legislators.
Porder, who chairs Indivisible Scarsdale, called Latimer, for whom she had campaigned in 2017.
Porder said that the county executive assured her the matter was not ready to proceed in an email he forwarded to her.
“Whatever document(s) may be under consideration or in draft form should not be treated as an active matter unless otherwise advised directly by me,” Latimer wrote to Nonna and other top administration officials. “There are serious public policy matters that must be addressed and can only be addressed in public prior to any further action in this direction.”
Board of Legislators Chairman Ben Boykin, who received $1,500 in campaign contributions from Woolsey in 2019 and 2000, said that once Million Air completes the storm water project, the county board will review the hangar plan in light of the environmental issues, citizen voices, and the airport’s importance to the local economy.
“If any lease amendment proposal does come before us, the Board will give the proposal the appropriate, thorough vetting through our public committee process, with due consideration for environmental concerns, community concerns, and understanding the important role the airport plays in job creation and economic growth in the County,” Boykin said.
Follow Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson on Facebook or Twitter @davidmckaywils1.