Op/Ed

Editorial: Middlebury airport: How big is too big?

ANGELO LYNN

As East Middlebury residents, and particularly those who live closest to the Middlebury State Airport, attend meetings to adopt a new Master Plan for the airport it’s natural for those residents to resist growth that could further disrupt the neighborhood’s relative tranquility. And they are right to assume that more growth of hanger capacity, commercial buildings and other measures will increase flight activity.

That reality, however, has been evident for the past 60 or so years and should be expected by area homeowners. While questioning details of the state’s proposed Master Plan update, the first since it was last done in 2003, the real question by members of the Middlebury Airport Neighborhood Association (MANA) is how big should the airport grow at this location?

To answer that question, a brief history of the airport and an understanding of the role state airport’s play in the region’s economic development establishes a helpful context.

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The airport was first built by the Quesnel family in the 1950s to support that family’s commercial operation for area farms and other interests. As that operation wound down, the town purchased the facility in 1966. A few years later the state purchased it in 1970 to make it part of the state’s airport system. What’s noteworthy about this history is that the location of the airport was not born from careful planning, but rather out of economic convenience; or to put it more bluntly, it was probably a relatively cheap way for the town to establish an airport, and for the state to expand its airport system.

Nonetheless, for the past 52 years, the airport has been tied to a statewide economic development plan and air transportation system.

A glance at the business plan of the Middlebury State Airport, as explained in the current Master Plan, lays out the basic objectives:

“The purpose of this business plan for Middlebury State Airport (6B0) is to recommend potential means of improving the Airport’s financial performance, identifying means to enhance regional economic development due to the Airport’s presence, and to examine methodologies for increasing operational efficiency.”

According to the airport’s operator, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), its mission statement complements the business plan with the following statements:

“Vermont’s airport system will be accessible, safe and secure, meeting the needs of its business and recreational users, including implementing new technologies to support the future system… Vermont’s airports will be operated as business-oriented facilities focusing on creating opportunities for a return on the investment and will provide intermodal linkages to national transportation systems.”

The statement goes on to outline several goals, among them are to:

  • Preserve and enhance Vermont’s existing airport system’s infrastructure investment through maintenance and rehabilitation to meet future growth and demand as well as providing new infrastructure to meet future needs in support of the national air transportation system when needed.
  • Plan for future airport development and protect public investment in airports through promotion of compatible land use in the vicinity of airports.
  • Make timely, sound infrastructure investments derived from airport master plans and based on priorities that are determined through coordination with Vermont’s aviation stakeholders, including use of the Vermont Airport Capital Facilities Program.
  • Strive to generate appropriate revenues from the operation of the State-owned airports in support of their continued operation and expansion utilizing a business-oriented approach.

It’s also important to note that while the airport in Middlebury is classified as a Local Service Airport, is also included in the National Plan for Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) as a general aviation facility. That means the airport can qualify for federal funding for various improvements and/or upgrades and is expected to operate in that capacity.

In short, a big part of the Middlebury State Airport’s mission — in addition to its recreational use by private pilots — is to be part of the state and federal government’s air travel system as well as serve as an economic engine for the greater-Middlebury region.

It is for that reason that the proposed 2022 Master Plan for the Middlebury State Airport includes modest growth over the next two decades. In fact, state officials are forecasting annual operations to grow from the current 6,350 (take-offs and landings) in 2020 to 7,569 by 2041 — that’s 19% over 20 years, or a growth rate of about 2% a year.

In exchange for any such potential growth, Middlebury area residents could expect an increase in good-paying jobs (as evidenced by the current aviation-oriented businesses operating at the airport); benefits to area businesses, corporations and institutions who rely on the airport for private jet or small plane usage; occasional use by the Vermont National Guard; and as a recreational opportunity for pilots of small planes.

None of the airport’s inherent focus on economic development should minimize the concerns that airport neighbors expressed at a recent Middlebury selectboard meeting vis-à-vis noise or aesthetics, but it should help all Middlebury residents put the neighbors’ concerns in perspective.

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As a town-wide concern, the redrafting of the airport’s Master Plan is an opportunity for policy makers to consider whether the airport’s prospective growth is too great for its existing location, and whether another location (perhaps closer to the northern-most end of the town’s industrial park) would better serve the town’s long-term commercial interests, including an increase in the use of commercial drones and other advances that we have yet to imagine.

Such a significant change in planning may be too late for this current Master Plan update, but if this is a legitimate concern and a valid option, local leaders and planners could shorten the timeframe on the current update to five years and spend that time considering creative options.

What the town and state should want to avoid is building more infrastructure at a site that 20 years from now might be maxed out, more of a headache to airport neighbors, and even more costly to relocate. Contrary to how the current airport site was chosen, it just might be the right time to thoughtfully choose a new site that would serve Middlebury well for the next 50-plus years.

Angelo Lynn

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