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Justin Silvia, 52, the owner of Chattanooga Skydiving Company, poses for a portrait in front of a plane he uses to take up skydivers at the Marion County Airport on Friday, February 28, 2014, in Jasper, Tenn. Silvia has been in the skydiving business for 30 years.
Why would you want to run a successful business out of town? It is their responsibility to help me flourish.

The owner of the Chattanooga area's only place to try parachuting worries Marion County officials may yank a key part of his business out from under him.

County airport board officials question whether it's safe for the Chattanooga Skydiving Co.'s customers to drop out of the sky and land on the grass next to the runway at the airport just east of Jasper, Tenn.

"The whole issue is safety," county attorney William Gallagher said Friday. "[The airport is] really small and doesn't have a whole lot of open space for landing."

The county doesn't want to stop the skydiving business from operating, Gallagher said. Officials just question whether it'd be safer to have the parachutists land elsewhere.

The airport board at its meeting Thursday night sought an informal safety review from the Federal Aviation Authority, Gallagher said.

Chattanooga Skydiving Co. owner Justin Silvia vows to fight any such restriction, and hired South Pittsburg attorney Jared Smith to represent him.

"We've done over 20,000 parachute jumps here without an incident," Silvia said Friday. "Show me where the issue is."

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Justin Silvia, 52, the owner of Chattanooga Skydiving Company, poses for a portrait in front of a plane he uses to take up skydivers at the Marion County Airport on Friday, February 28, 2014, in Jasper, Tenn. Silvia has been in the skydiving business for 30 years.
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The FAA gives parachutists the same rights as small airplanes, Silvia said. He said it would be a hardship for his customers to land elsewhere.

"I don't have a farmer's field to land in. It doesn't exist," he said. "It is my right to operate here, as skydiving is an FAA- approved aeronautical activity."

It's convenient for his customers to land on the airport's grass, he said, because they can walk to their cars and his employees can walk back to the hangar where the skydiving business is housed and get ready for the next batch of jumpers.

Landing elsewhere would require a van, Silvia said, to transport customers after they land.

"I'd have to have a commercial driver," he said. "And I'd have to have a van."

He says his business has grown to a $750,000-a-year operation with seven employees. Silvia prepared an "economic impact statement" that says he pays $325,000 in wages and that the "visitors impact" from his business is $500,000 from 5,000 day-trippers and $1.5 million from overnight guests. Silvia said he paid $9,300 in rent to the county airport in 2014.

"Why would you want to run a successful business out of town?" Silvia asked. "It is their responsibility to help me flourish."

Pilots have raised concerns that they could hit skydivers in the air, Gallagher said, or run into parachutists as they walk across the runway to return to the hangar.

"I'm sure if there's some kind of mishap, everybody'd get sued," Gallagher said. "That's one of the concerns of the county board."

A half dozen farmers and landowners came to recent airport board meeting to complain, Gallagher said, about skydivers landing in fields around the airport, damaging crops and letting cattle out as they opened gates.

Since the county airport has accepted federal funds, the FAA has the final say on whether the skydiving operation is safe, Gallagher said.

The Chattanooga Skydiving Co. offers tandem skydiving so someone who's never done it before can be ready to parachute in an hour attached to an expert skydiver. The business also teaches people how to solo skydive and offers jumps to experienced skydivers.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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