Neighbors pan Middlebury airport expansion proposal

EAST MIDDLEBURY — More than 80 area residents turned out at the Middlebury State Airport this past Tuesday evening to learn more about a proposed runway renovation/expansion project.
Many took the chance to voice their concerns about the possibility that those upgrades — and others laid out in a state airports master plan — could bring larger planes, heavier and larger aircraft traffic, more noise and possibly more lighting to what is now a modest airfield nestled in a residential neighborhood.
At issue is an estimated $3.5 million project that would include:
•  The acquisition of “avigation” easements from some airport neighbors primarily at the southern takeoff/approach of the runway. Guy Rouelle, aviation program director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, explained some trees need to be removed in order to maintain adequate sight visibility for pilots landing at, and leaving from, the Middlebury State Airport.
State officials have negotiated easements with 11 of the 14 affected property owners thus far, according to Rouelle. Those 14 easements are expected to cost a combined total of $260,000, he said.
“There are trees that have encroached on the approach zone,” Rouelle told residents who took a guided bus tour of the airport facilities. “We want to clear the trees and maintain the approach zones in perpetuity.”
•  Extending the 2,500-foot runway by 700 feet (to the north) for a total of 3,200 feet, and widening it from the current 50 feet to 60 feet. The adjacent taxiing apron would also be extended and slightly reconfigured to safely complement the runway, according to Rouelle.
•  Performing reconstruction and repaving of the runway and taxiing apron. Rouelle said the runway/taxi surfaces were last repaved more than two decades ago and could no longer be satisfactorily patched within Federal Aviation Administration standards.
“We are beyond a point where crack filling is an option,” Rouelle said.
He described all of the proposed airport repairs as safety-related and not intended as an inducement for greater traffic or for bringing in a larger classification of airplanes. The federal government would be responsible for 90 percent of the total project costs, with the state picking up the other 10 percent. Design and permitting work for the taxi-way/runway work is slated to begin within the next two weeks, with the goal of having construction during fiscal year 2018, according to Rouelle. The absence of funding and/or the requisite permitting would at the very least postpone the runway project, according to Rouelle.
“Nothing is a done deal,” he said. “There is no guarantee until we receive funding.”
Rouelle made his presentation before a large group of Middlebury residents — primarily from the area — whose anxiety and anger about the proposed project was tweaked by swarms of hungry mosquitos that invaded the open-air building in which the May 19 informational meeting was held. Heated comments were accompanied by loud swats during a gathering that spanned two-and-a-half hours.
In short, local residents said they did not want to get stung by a project that might make the Middlebury Airport a more powerful magnet for air traffic. They said they feared a longer runway would make the airport more attractive to larger planes that would add to periodic noise and activity that some residents said occasionally prevents them from having conversations and sometimes shakes items within their homes. According to VTrans, Middlebury’s airport sees around 35,000 “operations” per year.
“Given the Middlebury Airport is the closest airport in the state of Vermont to a residential area … I have had airplanes go overhead this spring that shook the house and rattled things on the window sill,” said airport neighbor Anne Christy.
Christy, like other neighbors, voiced concerns that VTrans and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have been underestimating the noise generated by the Middlebury Airport, and they suggested that state officials get more sophisticated noise measuring equipment on site.
“There are some serious flaws in using this one-size-fits-all national model,” resident Lewis Holmes said. “Decibels are a logarithmic scale. One hundred and ten is a jackhammer; 60 is a normal conversation; 30 is a whisper. You’re saying that 65 decibels — slightly above a normal conversation — is confined to the runway. What use is that model?”
Rouelle encouraged neighbors to take photos and report the tail numbers of planes that cause too much noise or that fly erratically.
“As you describe it, that is a situation that would not be acceptable,” Rouelle said of what Christy has experienced at her home.
Residents also expressed fears about how greater airport activity — and the potential for jet fuel spills in the future — could affect the underlying water aquifer and wetlands areas. Rouelle acknowledged the presence of more than 38 wells within a 2,000-foot radius of the airport boundary.
Opponents said their apprehension is also fueled by what they said is a dubious state track record in classifying the airport in Middlebury. They noted that Middlebury Airport’s status was mysteriously changed in 2003 from A-1 to a more substantial B-1 airport. Aircraft approach category “B” means aircraft with approach speeds between 91 and 120 knots may use the airport. The design group “1” means aircraft with a tail height less than 20 feet and a wing span of less than 49 feet may use the airport, according to Rouelle, who said he has thus far been unable to find out how or why the A-1 to B-1 switch was made for Middlebury.
A resident at Tuesday’s meeting questioned the state’s ability to monitor infractions at the Middlebury Airport; she alleged having seen a DC-3 aircraft (wingspan 95 feet) land at the airport several years ago. Another resident claimed to have occasionally observed motorcyclists racing down the runway. And several residents voiced concerns about the U.S. military’s periodic use of the airport for helicopters and aircraft activity.
“If you expand this airport, I would really like our selectboard to consider whether this is the kind of thinking that adds to quality of life in town,” resident Karen Glauber said. “Many of us pay extremely high taxes for this area and for the state … We will have to go to the town and ask for our property taxes to be reduced. The town has no promise for you bringing additional money to our town by having an expansion of this airport.”
Resident Pat Berry questioned the wisdom of expanding the Middlebury Airport runway as a way of making the facility safer.
“Maintaining the status quo for the runway is probably the smartest thing you can support,” Berry said.
Rouelle argued that the current length of the Middlebury State Airport runway is “not entirely safe for the current classification of aircraft that come into the airfield under certain conditions.”
He said hot weather, coupled with the altitude of the airport, can make navigation tricky for the turbo props and single-engine aircraft that now use the facility.
“This airport is a challenge,” Rouelle said. “There is an argument on one side that we are setting the stage for larger aircraft, but there is also the reality of the situation that we have failing pavements, failing taxi-ways … these projects should be repaired as it is.”
Neighbors also asked Rouelle about a state airports master plan that raises the possibility of night lighting, and the sale of jet fuel at the Middlebury Airport. Rouelle acknowledged those suggestions, but said they are not part of any imminent proposal and would have to stand on their own merits — and stand up to local, state and federal reviews — if they were ever to advance.
A handful of private businesses currently operate at the Middlebury Airport, including J&M Aviation, Downey Corp. and Green Mountain Avionics. Rouelle hopes the current on-site enterprises are able to thrive and grow, but added there are currently no other businesses proposed for the airport as a byproduct of the runway expansion.
Jamie Gaucher, Middlebury’s director of business development and innovation, has hoped to make the airport a new hub for business growth.
State figures showed the Middlebury Airport in 2014 received $32,142 in lease revenues along with $23,925 in fuel sales. The airport’s expenses, by comparison, were $53,581. Forty-two aircraft are currently based there.
Resident Ruth Hardy questioned the state’s and FAA’s proposed investment in an airport that caters mainly to the private sector.
“I guess I am curious if this is just mostly private individuals using this and private businesses, or is there a public use beyond the National Guard using it as a training facility?” Hardy asked. “Does the state have a public use, does our town have a use, or are we just funding a project for a bunch of private individuals who are lucky enough to be able to afford a plane?”
Rouelle responded that the airport also provides a public benefit through jobs and services delivered by the on-site businesses that, among other things, maintain, paint and improve communication systems on aircraft.
Resident Ross Conrad urged project planners to reconsider the scope of work and not extend the runway. Conrad said he can understand the need to pare back trees to increase runway visibility, but he does not think lengthening the runway is a good idea. He noted the airport has a good safety record — one accident during the past 10 years, when a pilot lost engine power on takeoff and collided with trees.
“With the extension, other planes that couldn’t land here at all could land here on a good day,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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