Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Middlebury Airport is bad investment

Last Wednesday (Dec.14), VTrans’ consultants presented the final draft of the Middlebury State Airport Master Plan. One might expect that after 30+ months and almost $350,000 of consulting fees, that this plan might prove to be a concise, data-backed and realistic business case for the continued existence of the State Airport for the next 15-20 years. It was not. Instead the Master report continues a slow development creep for an airport that is desperately trying to justify its own existence, and continues the Vermont taxpayer burden which supports its operational losses year after year.

Listening to the presentation, we felt like the Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass —, “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

So what did we learn about the Airport Master Plan? Here are VTrans’ “six impossible things” that they want you to believe.

First, the Master Plan recommends development at the Airport that totals more than $10M of public funds that would be spent on the capital improvements at the Airport over the next 20 years. This includes over $1M for a 1,500-square-foot terminal building for use as a pilot lounge. At a time when local residents are struggling to find affordable housing, this is at the very least tone deaf. We suggest that $10M of public investment in Middlebury for housing and childcare could really make a substantial difference to the Town infrastructure and economic development. The projected public investment works out at a shocking $360,000 per hobby plane (n=28) that is actually “based” at the airport.

Second, the authors of the report also agreed that there is no reliable data about actual flight activity at the airport. The report presents projections that are little more than guesswork. For example, the much-vaunted GARD system that VTrans’ Ms. Brassard mentioned in the Addison Independent article of Oct 13, (“VTrans explains flight counts at Middlebury airports”) is, according to VTrans, no more or no less reliable than other counting systems like FlightAware, which shows considerably less activity at Middlebury than the GARD count. But VTrans chooses to use the more “optimistic” number — I wonder why?

Third, VTrans admits that there is no waitlist for hangars at the airport and that they have “never claimed there was.” And yet the Master Plan includes space for almost 50,000sq feet of additional space! The consultants also agreed that the current plan for the North Hangars — which more than doubles existing size of the hangar space at Middlebury — would not have been planned nor placed where they are shown in the Master Plan if VTrans had not insisted on them being included. They were included because VTrans had initiated Act 250 proceedings to get hangars permitted before the Master Plan was even started. In other words, the consultants did not independently verify that hangars were needed nor that they were in a preferred spot. In an uncharacteristically frank admission, a VTrans employee months ago agreed that “they are not even where the pilots want them.”

Fourth, there is no environmental plan or plan for development at the airport which addresses the biggest challenge to the State and Federally — the climate change crisis. The plan, for example (and despite a direct mandate from the Vermont Legislature) does not include any electric charging stations either for planes or local cars.

Fifth, VTrans stated that there is a cost limit to the efforts that VTrans will address quality of life issues for the Airport neighbors — so they have not included any noise reduction berms, there will be no change in annual herbicide usage to control weed growth and little to no reduction in leaded fuel use is included in the Master Plan.

Sixth, and perhaps the most deaf to community and Town concerns, was that despite being above the sole source water supply for Middlebury and East Middlebury, VTrans see no reason to test either the current or future impacts of this proposed development on water quality, instead relying on the Act 250 process to mitigate any risk.

It’s time to change the paradigm. Middlebury State Airport has outlived its usefulness. I fear, like Alice, we may have gone through the looking glass, but it’s not too late to stop VTrans’ venturing into Wonderland!

Andrew Sambrook

Middlebury

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