Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Middlebury Airport planning ignores some realities

I have followed the Master Plan for the Middlebury airport, including attending both the June and December presentations on the plan, the September open house, the Act 250 hearing pertaining to hangar developments (we weren’t properly notified about any of the others, but heard about this one informally), to say nothing of countless hours reading and researching various documents and developments in and around the airport. It’s a lot to take in, and I’m sure I haven’t seen everything. Frankly, however, I do not believe this plan represents the best interests of the town and its residents, nor is it a sound use of taxpayer dollars.

The neighborhood:

• In the plan draft, Section 1.3 Airport Location describes the airport as being “six miles southwest of the Middlebury central business district” with greater distances given to larger cities and towns. This is misleading, at best, as it would suggest the airport is on its own in the middle of nowhere. It’s not. There is no mention of the village of East Middlebury, nor the hundreds of residents with homes in the immediate vicinity who are directly affected by the airport.

• While local residents have had “NIMBY” epithets hurled at us, I find it ironic that one of the consultants at the Dec. 14 meeting noted VTrans and the FAA maintain these smaller airports to channel hobby pilots away from other areas, “because they don’t want the aircraft at Middlebury flying into Burlington,” which suggests to me they’re here because they’re not wanted in someone else’s backyard. It’s actually in my front yard, and I don’t have a problem with that as long as the airport maintains proper boundaries like any good neighbor. The concerns come with unrealistic growth plans that pour millions of tax dollars into unwarranted development that can only degrade the neighborhood without providing any meaningful return.

The demand:

• The Master Plan draft outlines expansion of hangar space, nearly doubling the footprint of existing development, despite the fact that – by the report’s own numbers (see Table 2-1) – historic trends suggest activity at the airport has been declining for years, even when those numbers are likely a gross exaggeration of the actual activity. We are repeatedly told that “VTrans doesn’t build hangars,” but they do own most of the existing hangars and have already funded the initial permitting for this massive expansion, purely on speculation. Meanwhile, rents collected on existing facilities do not cover their own operating costs, and some of the people who want hangar space also want the state to provide it. The one identified case of an aircraft owner planning to build his own hangar shows potential profit for him, but the state will recoup next to nothing as the neighborhood only gains more noise. Line items for hangar development in Table 6-1 suggest it will be “Privately Funded,” but clearly that does not include the taxpayer-funded resources that have already been expended on the permitting process. I understand this expenditure is attributed a legislative initiative, but they appear to be picking and choosing which parts to apply.

The data:

• During the Dec. 14 presentation, one of the consultants said they rely on GARD data (which records radio traffic) rather than FlightAware (which relies on aircraft transponders) because “FlightAware data is anecdotal.” Of course, “anecdotal” also applies to the GARD data, as that software was designed to facilitate crash investigations, not counting flight operations. Yet, there is no plan to either reconcile the two data sources nor to review the GARD recordings to confirm how much of it represents flight operations vs. idle chatter.

• During the Dec. 14 presentation, the consultant clearly stated they know the numbers are not accurate, but for their purposes, it doesn’t matter. While historic trends suggest a significant decline in activity at the Middlebury airport, they’re planning for growth anyway, “regardless of if the GARD data is overstated or if there’s no growth in the future.” At best, that seems to be a grossly irresponsible use of public resources.

The lights:

• We understand the larger plan for nighttime lighting at the airport has been scrapped, while PAPI lights are still in the plan. If it’s about greater safety, that’s fine, but several of the comments from local aviation enthusiasts would herald the installation because it will allow them to land after sunset if they’re running late or in other conditions where visibility is limited. Given that the airport is in the middle of a residential area and next to a mountain, it would seem obvious that anything encouraging flight activity under poor visibility conditions is an invitation to disaster. Improvements geared toward greater safety are always desirable, obviously, but facilitating recklessness is not.

The environment:

• Given that VTrans is aware that the airport sits directly on top of an aquifer that is the primary water supply for the town of Middlebury with several wells that are publicly and privately owned on the airport grounds, safeguarding that vital resource should receive paramount consideration.

• The Master Plan draft does not consider environmental impacts in any meaningful way. Given VTrans’s poor track record in this area, this is an area of grave concern. We’ve repeatedly expressed concerns about the aquifer, herbicides, clearcutting, filling in wetlands, destruction of wildlife habitat, failing fuel tanks, and general disregard for neighbors’ concerns. Indeed, the notion that leaded aviation fuel in close proximity to a residential area might be a problem appeared to come as a surprise to them.

• While the town of Middlebury is currently pursuing an ambitious plan to reduce its carbon footprint, it comes as a slap in the fact that VTrans would spend upwards of $1 million to install a new fossil-fuel distribution facility without ever considering the installation of charging stations for electric aircraft and ground transport.

The fiscal responsibility:

• Section 6.1 Airport Capital Improvement Plan states: “Projects that are typically ineligible for funding include those that generate revenue and do not directly benefit the public, such as hangars. A private entity or developer, such as a fixed base operator (FBO) or other corporation, may fund and construct grant-ineligible projects.”

– If this is true, why are public resources being devoted to Act 250 permitting for new hangar development? And that number isn’t even mentioned in the balance sheet. What other costs are we missing?

• We keep hearing that the airport has tremendous potential for economic development, but barring some “field of dreams” surprise that nobody has identified, the opposite result seems more likely. They lengthened the runway a few years ago, and yet airport use continued to decline. On the other hand, one of our neighbors isn’t speaking out against the airport anymore; he’s voting with his feet: moving to another town and taking his small business with him. That’s not a formula for economic growth. Nor is degrading entire neighborhoods and driving down property values. Indeed, if we divide the $10 million that VTrans suggests spending on 6B0 among the 30 planes they claim to be based there, we could write checks for $350k to each plane owner (the vast majority of whom are hobby pilots who are unlikely, ever, to fund hangars of their own) and still come out ahead. If VTrans is truly interested in economic development, they would do better to devote more resources to improving traffic flow on Route 7 through town.

• The plan intends to spend nearly $1 million on a tank for toxic leaded fuel (one which will never pay for itself with tax on fuel sales), but no thought to charging electric planes and ground vehicles (which was laid out in Act 108 [H.620] passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2018, and again by S.162 in 2019) when there’s a company just to our north that’s pioneering electric planes. According to their website, Beta Technologies’ charging equipment can be used both for aircraft and ground vehicles. This seems to be an opportunity that’s completely ignored here. This master plan is clearly not a model for economic development.

• Given the nightmare that has been public air transportation in the United States for the past few years, not the least being the recent massive delays and groundings of flights due to large-scale computer system failures, one must suppose the FAA has more important investments to make than upgrading a hobby field for a handful of amateur pilots.

The lead presenter for the Master Plan is a pilot, himself, and clearly this plan was developed in service to that perspective. Unfortunately, there are much larger needs and concerns that the plan completely fails to address. I hope we can do better. At the very least, we should do no harm.

Louise Prescott

Middlebury

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