Aviation magazine gives clues to Koladza Airport’s expanded future

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By Thursday, Feb 16 News  8 Comments
Heather Bellow
The self-serve fueling station at Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington has residents worried about pollution to the aquifer and Green River that runs along the property. This is just one of many worries abutters and the airport's neighbors have about plans to improve or expand the airport into the future.

Great Barrington — At the heart of the airport controversy is what airport abutters and neighbors say are future expansion plans beyond what Berkshire Aviation Enterprises Inc. is telling everyone as it goes after a special permit to continue operating in a residential zone.

Berkshire Aviation, while now seeking this zoning clearance, is going to the town so it can build three new hangars and continue improving or expanding things at Walter J. Koladza Airport into the future, without constantly smacking into litigation about doing commercial things in a residential area.

The airport was built in 1931, the year before the town made zoning regulations, and that’s how this happened.

From Seekonk Cross Road, part of the current hay lot that would feature three new hangars with 18 bays, a parking lot and and access road. The runway is to the left. Photo: Heather Bellow

From Seekonk Cross Road, part of the current hay lot that would feature three new hangars with 18 bays, a parking lot and and access road. The runway is to the left. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Aviation attorney Lori Robbins said the airport could continue to operate in its preexisting, nonconforming status “indefinitely” even if the Selectboard says no to this special permit. But that status would keep the airport open to lawsuits every time it wants to change or add things. This special permit, she added, “will dispel that cloud” and possibly save everyone, including the town, thousands in future litigation costs.

One of the reasons her client filed for the special permit, she said, “is to raise these kinds of concerns and address them.”

The plans now being considered at Town Hall are for three 149-foot by 50-foot hangars with 18 bays inside, 18 parking spaces and an access road. All of this would go onto a hay lot off Seekonk Cross Road that most abutters say will ruin their views and shrink their property values.

The airport’s neighbors are also concerned over water pollution from additional fuel and maintenance and a general increase in air and car traffic. They worry the airport will get noisier and busier as the airport’s owners attempt to enliven and improve what is a simple country airport. The owners also say they need to add the hangars for crucial income that will pull them out of the red.

Some neighbors say the real future plans are to expand even further, but say this is all shrouded in mystery.

Yet, in a 2010 article in Plane & Pilot magazine, airport co-owner Richard Solan gave some clues.

“We look forward to offering the proverbial $100 hamburger…what’s a country airport without that?” Solan said.

Koladza co-owner Richard Solan, left, and airport manager Ken Krentza speak to the Great Barrington Selectboard on Monday. Photo: Heather Bellow

Koladza co-owner Richard Solan, left, and airport manager Ken Krentza speak to the Great Barrington Selectboard on Monday. Photo: Heather Bellow

Solan, an American Airlines pilot who learned to fly at Koladza, went on to say that the airport wanted to add a charter service and an LSA (light sport aircraft) dealership and air shows.

Solan, who was out of the country on business, could not be reached Wednesday. But co-owner Tom Vigneron said it was true that all these were future possibilities.

“We want to make it a destination spot,” Vigneron said of the restaurant idea. He said they have had discussions with local caterers about a daily service, but said doing food service would be a “big change in terms of regulations; we would have to upgrade quite a few things to do it. It’s far down the road, maybe a pipe dream, but it would draw people in.”

Having an LSA dealership would give the airport more options, Vigneron said, since these smaller planes with less speed and power require less training, and so “draw more people into aviation.”

LSAs aren’t cheap, he said, running at least over $100,000. He added that Berkshire Aviation didn’t have “immediate plans” for this.

Vigneron said air shows are heavily regulated by the FAA and wouldn’t be allowed at Koladza. He said that was a reference to the airport possibly having more events like the Berkshire Bike-N-Fly that bring pilots and others in for a day.

Vigneron, Solan, John Guarnieri and Edward Ivas inherited the airport from Koladza’s estate in 2008, signed off by John Koladza. Vigneron says they need to build these three hangars to be “financially viable” but did not answer questions about how much it would cost to build the hangars.

The maintenance building at Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington. Photo: Heather Bellow

The maintenance building at Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Aviation owns roughly 90 acres valued this year at just over $1 million. A portion of it is in Chapter 61A, which gives the property owner a reduction in taxes on farmland.

In this case, the owners pay property taxes on $324,000 on the farmland–rather than the true value of $575,000, for instance.

And if the new hangars were built on that Chapter 61A land, the owners would face property tax rollback penalty, according to the assessor’s office.

Right now the airport has eight airplanes for rent, a maintenance building, an office and a self-serve fueling area with underground fuel tanks. There are two older and open hangars across the 2,500-foot runway from these buildings.

There are five maintenance employees and six flight instructors, two of whom are full time.

But a Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) report on state airports says Koladza employs 43 people with a payroll of over $1 million. Vigneron said he couldn’t explain this discrepancy, adding that all the employees “double task.”

It is a potential increase in activity at the maintenance and fueling area that has many neighbors worried about the aquifer that feeds private wells and the town water supply. The airport sits in a water quality protection district and also has a 500-foot setback from the Green River.

Airport neighbors and abutters as well as plane owners spoke passionately about the airport’s plans at a Selectboard public hearing at Town Hall Monday (Feb 13). Photo: Heather Bellow

Airport neighbors and abutters as well as plane owners spoke passionately about the airport’s plans at a Selectboard public hearing at Town Hall Monday (Feb 13). Photo: Heather Bellow

Vigneron says that the owners see the river one of the “greatest assets” in town and want to make the fueling area better by upgrading it to above-ground tanks. He said the area undergoes environmental assessments “all the time” by both the state and ConocoPhillips, which requires twice annual testing. The airport has a computerized leak detection system.

But Vigneron noted that there are many threats to water quality in this area that include farm chemical and manure runoff and “those tanker trunks that run up and down Route 71.”

All of this and more will get hashed out in the days leading up to the continued public hearing on Monday, Feb. 27, when the Selectboard continues to consider the special permit request.

In the meantime, Robbins says the airport is listening to the abutters. “They will address all their concerns with reports and documentation,” she said.

And Vigneron says a meeting with abutters will be set up soon. “We’ve always gotten along pretty well,” he added. “I understand why they might fear a great expansion. But we’re really just trying to accommodate our existing customers and add a few more.”


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Love the idea of mane a small restaurant with local caterers. Would be such fun to bring the kids and have a bite to eat and watch airplanes.

    This small private airport is a wonderful asset to the community

  2. Eleanor Windman says:

    All this for existing customers and a few more….I find that very inconsistent with restaurants and air shows.

    1. Noah Meyerowitz says:

      Hi, Eleanor,
      I’d like to politely correct you on two things:
      1) Retaurant(s). You made it plural. If one is ever built, we’ll be lucky. But multiple restaurants? At an airport? Here? Not going to happen.
      2) And in regards to air shows, they won’t happen. From the article, “Vigneron said air shows are heavily regulated by the FAA and wouldn’t be allowed at Koladza.”
      So there you have it. And to further dispel some questions, “all this” refers to an article published in “Plane & Pilot” from 2010! 7 years later, and none has come to fruition. That should allay some concerns.

      1. Joe says:

        Noah,As you well know as you are behind the scene,The New Owners are bringing the Biggest Trojan Horse This Town Has Ever Seen Paid In FULL BY THE RESIDENTS OF MASS THROUGH THE D.O.T. !!! The Second The Airport Clears The Appeal Period Of Its Handicap Deck? Using THAT IS SO LOW YOU ALL DESERVE TO BE GROUNDED. PS, Walt Koladza Never Asked FOR Assistance ,Ran this Airport At A profit,Whats wrong with this currant ownership?JOE

  3. John H Hart - Stocbridge says:

    Building hangers is pretty benign. Not much different than single story tobacco barns with more doors. Perhaps, to calm the neighbors they could be designed and painted to appear as such. The Gt. Barrington Airport is a great asset to the Berkshires. It’s been there since 1931! All I can think to ask the neighbors is, why did you buy homes nearby an airport if you don’t like the airplanes?
    On the flip side; what if the airport went broke and closed? Then the neighbors might be faced with a multi-home housing development! That would truly impact your views. Developers tend to shade things they want to “get away with”. These guys at the airport are NOT developers.
    A more down to earth, bunch of local nice guys you won’t find.
    Work with them. They WILL work with you.

  4. Michele says:

    I have a soft spot in my heart for the GB airport. Walt was kind to my father who would have liked to become a pilot but couldn’t afford it. I have his flight logs which ended way to soon. My family has been farming locally for many years and has been a good neighbor to the GB airport. The airport is only so big, an additional few hangers to support the longevity of the facility, will not impact the locals in a negative way. Keep in mind, The runway is only so long……big aircrafts can’t land there. It is a ” neighborhood” friendly facility. Be a good neighbor.

  5. John says:

    Great Barrington airport was built way back in the days of Orville and Wilber. I am certain Orville And Wilber would be happy to see more hanger space for the old birds so that they can be passed on to the next generation.

  6. Dominic says:

    Maybe I missed the piece about Flint Michigan’s water issues being caused by 90 year old small town airport. All of the neighbors quibbling about preposterous ailments and fantasies need to grow up a little if a real conversation is to be had.
    Maybe inviting positive change and having an influence over critical design elements is a better idea than begrudging development. Take for example the Dollar General in Sheffield if I may draw a parallel. Now Sheffield has an ugly Dollar General- if the energy had been spent on critiquing and being involved in the design rather than trying to shoot the whole thing down maybe there’d be a more locally appropriate building there.
    Also, if you are so concerned about pullution to the green river, why are you against the hangars. The planes are sitting outside on the grass now with no containment or drainage system. The MA building code dictates that any new buildings with overhead doors big enough to drive through must have oil water separators and floor drains- but go ahead and say that shooting down this improvement is based on your environmental analysis.
    I am all for the approach of hearing out people’s concerns etc and allowing input in front of a panel but I’d suggest that some research is done and maybe some neighbourly conversations should he had before tying up meeting after meeting with these personal opinions.

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