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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”