Lakefront airstrip in Panton ready to be reactivated

PANTON — The owner of a private Panton lakefront airstrip that was used informally for decades until he bought the property two years ago is seeking state and federal approval to bring it back to life.
Charles “Chip” Mather, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, is looking for a permit that would allow him and guests to fly in and out of the 1,700-foot-long, grass-covered strip up to 35 times a month.
Mather, who grew up in Bennington and graduated from St. Michael’s College, has been splitting time between his home in Maryland and a second home at 490 Shadow Glen Road in Panton. That’s off Lake Road just across from its intersection with Spaulding Road.
He owns a kit-built, single-engine Carbon Cub PA-18 that he hopes to fly in and out of Panton. According to draft meeting minutes of a June 6 Vermont Board of Transportation hearing in Panton, Mather also belongs to a club whose members own similar planes that could occasionally visit his home if he receives his permits.
Mather told the transportation board he sought a permit that would allow him up to three trips a day and guests two trips a day, within the overall monthly limit, and that he plans no commercial activity and would accept that provision in his permit.
The airstrip, which had apparently been used regularly from at least 1991 until Mather bought the property in 2016, was a major lure in the decision to buy, Mather said.
“Yes, the airfield was a significant factor in the purchase of the property,” Mather wrote in an email to the Independent. “I retired after 20 years and after a number of years in Maryland, we are ready to get back to Vermont.”
Vermont Agency of Transportation Operations Specialist Brian Pinsonault visited the site on May 11, after which VTrans wrote to the transportation board that the agency “would recommend approval” of the strip, pending further site approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to the draft June 6 minutes, Mather also has obtained permission from Panton to operate the airstrip; it was ruled a legal “auxiliary use” in its zoning district, and he also has a building permit.
Mather has also offered the airstrip to local fire and rescue personnel, local police and Vermont State Police for emergency use. Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur, who also attended the June 6 hearing, told the Independent the offer was welcome even if it was unlikely officials would need the strip.
Still, Breur said he could envision helicopters, if not airplanes, using the landing strip, “if we had some kind of major disaster out on the lake there where we needed to air people out, or if you had a major car wreck.” He added there could be a “slim chance” an event could require supplies to be flown in.
“It’s what I call another tool for the toolbox. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m all for it.”
Breur also recommended at the hearing that fuel storage be limited on the property to 50 gallons, which he said should be kept in a “safety canister,” per draft minutes.
Neighbors raised no major objections at the hearing, per draft minutes, and Mather said one neighbor in the flight path had written a letter in support of the permit.
Another neighbor, Steve Weber, said he was concerned in some circumstances planes might fly over a corner of his property. Mather said “depending on from which direction the aircraft was landing, it would fly over a corner of Mr. Weber’s property but that due to the power lines any aircraft flying over his property would have to be higher than 500 feet.”
Per the minutes Weber also said he appreciated Mather’s plan to “have the preferred flight patterns occur over the lake,” but was concerned about noise from ultra-light aircraft using the strip. Mather responded he “had no plans for ultra-light use” and would accept a condition on a permit that would ban them.
Neighbor Paul Tippett asked the board if “granting 420 takeoffs and landings per year” would affect neighborhood property values. Board member David Coen said board members did “not have the expertise to offer an opinion, but that some people likely will see an airstrip as a positive and some will see it as a negative.”
Breur, who lives further south on the lake in Addison, said he was not surprised by the relative lack of opposition. 
“You get more noise from the speedboats going up and down the lake,” he said. “I think everybody’s OK with it.”
Breur expects the same from the Board of Transportation and then the FAA.
“I’m sure he’ll get an OK. The people in the state couldn’t see why he wouldn’t,” he said.
Breur, who commutes past the site daily, looks forward to seeing Mather fly in and out.
“This is a really cool plane that he built,” he said. “It’s up in the air within 80 feet. I’d love to see it. I can’t wait.”
Mather said he never considered simply using the strip, as had previous property owners.  
“As part of the due diligence prior to purchase of the property we determined the airfield had not been through Vermont nor Federal Aviation Administration approval. Reading the applicable statutes, the penalties for non-approved uses were significant,” he said. “I have not yet used the field and submitted applications to both the state and the FAA for recognition as an approved airfield.”
But Mather hopes the day he can fly in an out of his property is not too far off, although transportation board Executive Secretary John Zicconi said parties to the application had until June 20 to submit testimony, and there is no timetable for a decision. 
“The Transportation Board was very professional and thorough,” Mather wrote. “They didn’t give me a date so I’ll await their deliberations and time frame. Hopefully I’ll receive a final ruling within the next 60 days.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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