East Middlebury residents wary of airport upgrades

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Vermont aviation officials are seeking federal funding to extend and widen the runway at the Middlebury State Airport. But some neighbors of the East Middlebury facility are hoping the project remains grounded due to concerns about a potential increase in air traffic and the required pruning of some buffer trees along the takeoff and landing approaches.
At issue is a proposal to lengthen the Middlebury Airport runway by 700 feet, to a total of 3,200 feet, and also widen it from the current 50 feet, to 60 feet.
Targeted for construction in 2017, the project would also improve runway and apron paving, some of which is currently receiving a 21 out of a maximum rating of 100, according to Guy Rouelle, aviation program administrator for the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
The Middlebury Airport has the shortest and narrowest runway of the 10 airports under the state’s purview, according to Rouelle, who explained the proposed runway improvement plan to a group of more than 30 neighbors who gathered in East Middlebury’s Sarah Partridge Community House on Tuesday evening. Rouelle said the state wants to upgrade the Middlebury Airport runway to, above all, make it safer, but also to make it more of a regional economic asset. Use of the airport increased by 23 percent during the past year in spite of its deficiencies, according to Rouelle. The airport is home to two growing businesses, J&M Aviation and Green Mountain Avionics.
“Middlebury (Airport) has deficiencies that we need to fix,” Rouelle said, adding some prospective users “are going elsewhere, because they can’t use the runway.”
Middlebury State Airport was built in 1952 and was serving airplanes as big as DC3s into the 1970s when it had a runway of around 4,000 feet, according to Rouelle. But the airport runway is now 2,500 feet long and thus largely limited to turbo props and single-engine aircraft. Those smaller aircraft must use virtually every inch of the runway and throttle hard to get liftoff within the allotted 2,500 feet, Rouelle noted, a phenomenon he said is ironically creating more noise than would be present on a longer runway, where planes could more gradually throttle up to takeoff speed.
To make matters worse, Rouelle said that both ends of Middlebury’s airfield do not meet optimum safety standards. He said each end should have a 240-foot “safety area.” The south end of the runway currently has a 40-foot safety area, according to Rouelle. The improvement plan calls for ensuring that 240-foot safety area to the south while putting in a 700-foot runway extension to the north. Airport officials are now negotiating what he called “avigation easements” with 13 affected property owners. These easements — which could be taken by eminent domain in cases where negotiations fail — would allow the state to selectively take out trees within the airfield’s landing and takeoff approaches.
“Before we do the (runway) extension, we want to make sure planes won’t encounter any obstructions,” he said of the easement efforts, which he hopes can be finalized by next March. An Environmental Impact Statement will also be completed within the proposed project area to ensure the work will not disrupt any wetlands or uproot endangered wildlife or vegetation, according to Rouelle.
There are no plans at this point to introduce runway lighting or larger aircraft to the Middlebury Airport, according to Rouelle. The maximum length for the Middlebury Airport runway is being placed at 4,000 feet, but there are no plans to push for such an extension, Rouelle added. A Middlebury Airport Committee that would include town officials and neighbors could be created to have input in future activity at the facility, he noted.
East Middlebury residents provided a great deal of input on Tuesday night, and most of it was in opposition to the proposed runway upgrades. Opponents voiced concerns that the project would result in the clearing of trees and vegetation that currently shield homes from some of the visual and noise impacts of the airport; Rouelle argued that safety-related work must proceed regardless of whether the runway is ultimately extended.
Some neighbors wondered if their property values would decline as a result of being close to a busier airport. Others said they feared the improved runway would attract a noisier class of airplanes.
“It’s already gotten to a point where when you have outside conversations, you have to stop talking to let an airplane go by and then restart your conversation,” said Julia Emilo, an airport neighbor. “It’s tolerable, but I wouldn’t be for more aircraft.”
Neighbor Anne Christy echoed Emilo’s comments.
“Planes go over my house very low,” she said. “It’s very disruptive.”
Nearby resident Ross Conrad pointed to research indicating that airport neighbors are more susceptible to illnesses such as heart disease, due to the stress of residing near an airfield.
“Is this the price people have to pay for progress?” Conrad asked.
Stephen Ploof owns and operates C&S Hunting Supplies at 76 School House Hill Road, which is close to the airport. He alleged that state officials cut down some buffer trees on his property, without his permission, in order to install a weather tower for the airport.
“There was no reason to do that,” Ploof told Rouelle.
Ploof added he teaches archery on his property, and there are times when his students can’t hear him due to current airport noise.
“I think everyone’s got a problem with this airport,” Ploof said, adding, “It’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”
Ploof promised to remain a vocal opponent of the runway project.
“I will fight this to the end,” he said.
Other residents suggested the state survey neighbors to get a sense of how the airport project would affect their quality of life. And some neighbors questioned the wisdom of making a substantial financial investment in an airport the size of Middlebury’s.
“I don’t understand why you would put a lot of money into the Middlebury Airport when there are two top-notch airports only 45 minutes away,” resident Mike Davis said.
“I believe what we have there now is working fine,” Davis added.
Jamie Gaucher, director of business development and innovation for the town of Middlebury, believes the airport is not capturing as many business opportunities as it could. But he stressed that any business development that occurs there must be aviation-related, and believes that small enterprises would fit best with the airport’s — and community’s — character.
“From my perspective, the airport is under-utilized,” Gaucher said. “It could be more of an economic engine.”
One neighbor, Peter DeGraff, said on Tuesday he had no objections to the proposed runway project or the way the airport is currently operating.
“As long as I have been here, the airport has never bothered me,” DeGraff said. “The safety features you are talking about are important.”
Rouelle promised several more public meetings about the airport project during the coming months.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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