Middlebury selectboard backs airport over objections

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday voted, 5-2, to support a Vermont Agency of Transportation proposal to make $3.5 million in safety upgrades to the Middlebury State Airport. That move is not sitting well with neighbors of the facility, who believe the project could have a negative impact on their quality of life and property values.
“I’ve tried to listen open-mindedly to both sides of the discussion,” Selectman Brian Carpenter said at a board meeting attended by around 20 airport neighbors.
“(The airport) provides some infrastructure and provides opportunity for recreation for some and a lifeblood for others,” Carpenter added. “My feeling is that this particular project is probably a very good project if we write the right restrictions in and right controls and make sure this is the way that we go, and we’re not going to develop the next Burlington International Airport here.”
The project calls for the acquisition of “avigation” easements from some airport neighbors, primarily at the southern takeoff/approach of the runway, to allow for the removal of some trees to maintain visibility for pilots landing at and leaving from the facility.
It also calls for 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 to 60 feet. The adjacent taxiing apron would also be rebuilt, extended and slightly reconfigured to safely complement the runway.
Guy Rouelle, aviation program director for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, has said that it has been more than two decades since the Middlebury Airport runway and taxi surfaces were last repaved. They can no longer be satisfactorily patched based on Federal Aviation Administration standards, said Rouelle, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Members of the Middlebury Airport Neighborhood Association (MANA), led by Richard Terk, have been lobbying local and state officials to forgo improvements that they believe will usher in larger planes, more air traffic and noise louder than what  they said already frequently drowns out backyard conversations and causes items on indoor shelves to rattle.
MANA on June 5 submitted a letter to VTrans Secretary Sue Minter asking that the agency “withdraw its pursuit of any runway extension or facility expansion at the Middlebury Airport, effective immediately.”
The group is alleging that the project “is simply serving as a foundation for succeeding phases of expansion and development that will be in direct conflict with the sentiments of the local community and unquestionably degrade the quality of life throughout the prospering neighborhoods adjacent to the airport.”
The group has argued that the runway extension would usher in a larger class of aircraft and perhaps lead to night lighting and jet fuel service at the airport.
MANA also presented the Middlebury selectboard and the Vermont Agency of Transportation with a petition, bearing more than 200 names, that among other things asks for local, state and federal authorities to “actively work to ensure that any safety upgrades will protect the vitality of our community and engage citizens in a robust, public and transparent process.”
The petition also requests a protection plan for the aquifers that supply water to the community, as well as a plan “that allows for both aviation safety and the preservation of the quality of life for all.”
Rouelle and other VTrans officials have said the $3.5 million project is all about safety, and that there are no current plans to approve larger aircraft, install lighting or dispense jet fuel. The airport now accommodates turbo-prop and single-engine aircraft, although the Vermont Army Guard brings in larger aircraft for occasional training exercises.
Terk voiced frustration on Tuesday that VTrans would not commit long-term restrictions on aircraft and development at the Middlebury Airport. Moreover, he said, VTrans has yet to clarify how the Middlebury Airport was reclassified from an A-1 facility to a busier B-1 category back in 2003. Neighbors contend that such a change in classification should have included a public hearing process.
“They have not been able to show us that the classification of the airport was changed properly from A-1 to B-1,” Terk said. “It was changed in a long-range plan.”
Rouelle said the Middlebury Airport was reclassified in 2003 as a result of an airport master-planning process that took into consideration, among other things, the prevailing mix of aircraft that used, and were housed at, the facility at the time.
“The proof in the pudding right now is, just go to the airport and look at the aircraft, open the hangars up, and the fleet mix at that airport are B-1 aircraft,” he said. “It is going to remain a B-1.”
Terk challenged Rouelle’s point, arguing that such a process could lead to the random reclassification of an airport if it suddenly attracted, unsolicited, some larger aircraft.
“The correct procedures were not met,” Terk said. “They didn’t give us … the opportunity to comment on this.”
More than 80 neighbors had voiced their concerns about the proposed airport upgrades at a May 19 public meeting at the facility. Selectboard members used Tuesday’s meeting as a follow-up to recap and discuss the project amongst themselves and determine whether they could support it.
Neighbors paid particular attention to Selectman Nick Artim’s pronouncements about the project. Artim had been quoted by VTDigger following the May 19 meeting as saying project opponents were experiencing “fear of the unknown.”
Neighbors took Artim to task for that comment, with one resident saying the only time she had experienced a “fear of the unknown” was when her spouse was confronting cancer.
Artim apologized for the comment, an expression he said he had borrowed from a colleague in the fire protection industry.
As for the project, he said it was worthy of the board’s support.
“I think we are on course,” Artim said. “What I have heard so far tells me that thought has been given toward this and there is a lot more to go. There are extensive studies that still need to be done and there is a lot of engineering work. There are fairly extensive standards that have to be followed so that we can have a safer airport that benefits the entire town of Middlebury.”
Artim made the following motion, which the board supported by a 5-2 vote:
“The selectboard of the town of Middlebury endorses that aviation safety improvements, including runways, taxi-ways and pertinent flight paths, at the Middlebury State Airport that are proposed by the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s state aviation program to comply with the current and applicable standards of the United States Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration for this classification of airport. We request that VTrans proceed with detailed design and implementation efforts in an expeditious and appropriate manner, and provide this board with periodic status and progress updates.”
Selectwomen Susan Shashok and Laura Asermily opposed the motion. Both indicated a desire to hear more information before lending their support to the plan. Shashok said she specifically wanted more details on how VTrans might mitigate noise from the airport.
“I think (voting on the plan) is jumping ahead, and I’d like more time,” said Shashok, who had instead suggested a board vote on the neighbors’ petition.
“Mitigation is lessening the impact for people so it becomes acceptable,” she added. “My belief is that just because a resident lives near some sort of infrastructure doesn’t mean that they have to then sacrifice themselves to that infrastructure for the greater good.”
While the selectboard endorsed the airport improvement plan, the project still faces several hurdles before it can become a reality. It will need to receive funding guarantees and pass muster with state and local permitting authorities.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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