EDITORIAL: Time for neighbors to rethink opposition to Great Barrington airport improvement

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By Sunday, Jun 25 Viewpoints  18 Comments
The Walter J. Koladza Airport on Route 71 in Great Barrington.

It seems that whenever a business tries to expand or improve in Berkshire County, opponents come out of the woodwork in an attempt to derail the project. Sometimes these naysayers have valid reasons for standing in the way. But sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong.

Edge-placeholderslide-editorial-W1Such is the case with the 92-acre Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington, where the owners want to build three new hangars tucked away on the north side of the property. They insist the additional structures do not portend any great expansion but will allow the airport to better service its existing clients, including a couple dozen aircraft owners who rent inexpensive tie-down space but who really need the shelter of a hangar to better protect their six-figure investments.

The situation is a complicated one. The airport was built before the town established its first zoning code in 1931, so its operations are nonconforming but mostly grandfathered in. And the surrounding neighborhood includes residential and agricultural areas, as well as the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School.

But any expansion of a nonconforming use requires a special permit from the town. In considering the special permit application, the Selectboard is in the unenviable position of having to balance the airport’s desire to generate more revenue to remain viable as a business against the concerns of neighbors who don’t want to see increased traffic, noise or environmental impacts as a result of the proposed expansion.

For obvious reasons, the airport is limited in its ability to expand — both because of its grandfathered status and because of simple geography. It’s lone runway is only 2,640 feet long, 1,400 feet too short to accommodate the private jets some fear might one day fly in an out of Great Barrington, and just barely long enough for two-engine prop planes.

Airport officials might also want to have a restaurant, a store or a museum to generate more revenue. But some airport opponents are demanding the selectboard place restrictions on these kinds of activities as a condition of granting the permit.

The hearing on the permit has now been continued a fourth time, which is either a reflection of the complexity of the matter or a result of dilatory tactics — or both. It’s been an exhausting process made worse by the actions of airport opponents whose strategy seems to be to throw as much as they can against the wall and see what sticks.

As do many other airports, the Great Barrington facility sells and stores leaded aviation fuel. And since it sits next to the Green River, it’s situated in an aquifer protection zone. One neighbor, attorney and hotel developer Marc Fasteau, had his well tested and says its water contains elevated levels of lead. With little evidence, he has suggested the contamination is a result of the fuel sold at the airport, when of course it’s entirely possible the contamination originated in his own plumbing, or from somewhere else on his or a different neighbor’s property.

Fasteau and his attorney have proposed a list of conditions for the permit, such as a ban on retail sales (including rental car operations), limiting the airport to one mechanic, the employment of no more than four flight instructors and substantial limits on other aircraft operations. For their part, airport officials insist many of those conditions are unacceptable to impose on a business that has been a good neighbor over the years.

During the hearings, other neighbors have complained about Black Hawk military helicopters using the airport for training at night — a valid concern but one over which the airport has absolutely no control and from which it derives no income.

Others have complained about the number of planes flying over the weekend and the noise they generate at low altitudes. In an effort to replicate aircraft decibel levels, one neighbor even staged a cheap stunt in which he approached the selectmen’s table and blew a loud whistle for five seconds – a performance for which he was rightly ejected from the room.

For its part, through Town Planner Chris Rembold, the Selectboard has drafted its own set of possible conditions for the permit. But to its credit, the board is carefully weighing each condition and is wary of imposing the kinds of stringent operational limits favored by Fasteau and others.

It’s understandable that neighbors want to protect their interests – and property values — and preserve what peace and quiet they have. But they alone made the decision to purchase a home near an airport. It goes without saying that the airport shouldn’t be allowed to expand willy-nilly to the point that it more resembles JFK or Bradley than a country landing strip with a rickety hangar. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

As proposed, the airport’s plans are entirely reasonable, given its need to remain viable and its history of good citizenship. The objections of most of its detractors are less valid, given that they alone took the risk of buying a home near a noisy business that would surely expand its operations someday.

On the other hand, opponents do have a point. They have lived with the airport in their backyards — in some cases for decades. They just don’t want to see the airport expand its operations to an unreasonable extent. The problem for them is that the airport’s current proposal isn’t unreasonable at all.


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18 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Wonderfully written. Thank you for the common sense.

    1. K says:

      I agree with you, John. Now we hope our selectboard uses common sense in this matter, too.

  2. Helen says:

    First, I’m not a neighbor. I don’t live anywhere near the airport. A lot of us who oppose this permit aren’t neighbors and you belittle our concern about the town’s water supply by framing this as NIMBY.

    Second, you missed the point. Entirely. Have you read the application? The airport owners are not seeking a special permit to build three new hangars. They are seeking a special permit to have their nonconforming use made conforming, which would mean they wouldn’t need special permits for future expansion. It would mean that any future expansion would be at the discretion of the airport owners, and even they seem not to know what that means to the neighborhood and the town.

    At the first hearing the owners said there would never be a restaurant, despite being quoted in a magazine article saying they planned to have one. They said they would not be expanding the airport office, despite the fact that they applied, and were approved for, a $4 million grant from MASS DOT to do just that. They said there would never be jets, the runway was too short. When the Selectboard proposed conditions which would do nothing more than hold the owners to those promises, the owners said the conditions were “unacceptable.”

    It isn’t that the neighbors moved next to an airport and now don’t want there to be an airport near them. No one is proposing closing the airport. That isn’t on the table. That isn’t the decision the Selectboard has in front of them. What the owners are asking for is the right to have future decisions about the size, noise, even the pollution levels, left up to them with no oversite by town officials. That would be the effect of granting the permit without the restrictions, proposed by neighbors and the selectboard, and opposed by the owners.

    The airport sits in a residential zone. Shouldn’t there be limits on the size, scope of activities, noise levels, and traffic?

    But more important than that, shouldn’t we know where the lead in our water is coming from before we permit the largest and most obvious source (according to the MASS DEP).

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      The Edge understands why the airport is applying for a special permit, in this case to codify its legal existence through the selectboard. Whether the airport chose that route or opted to go before the ZBA for a more traditional special permit, the three new hangars could not happen without a special permit. That is “the point.”

      1. Helen says:

        Missed again. This permit without conditions opens up FUTURE expansion in addition to the current request for hangars. A ZBA permit would allow only the hangars. That isn’t what they are applying for.

      2. Terry Cowgill says:

        The hangars cannot be built without a special permit. The selectmen will no doubt attach conditions to it, as they should, to ensure that expansion rights are not unlimited.

      3. Steve Farina says:

        Hopefully there will not be vaguely worded restrictions, such as “no retail sales”, which would prevent the airport from even selling educational training manuals to their flight students…or any number of things which may enhance the airport and the community, like T-shirts and sweatshirts proudly declaring the airport and maybe the town it resides in.

        Also, it seems inaccurate at the surface to say the airport will be able to expand and do whatever it wants…i.e. a restaurant would still need building permits as well as board of health approvals, fire safety systems and other code restrictions would also need to be met.
        It is a business trying to expand to survive, so while one may say they don’t want to shut them down, failing to allow them to grow, adapt to their customer base and find a way to thrive may essentially be the same as causing them to close.
        As for the supposed lead contamination. ..isn’t there a private property over on the corner of Hurlburt and 71 that has fuel tanks?
        And if there really was something “actionable” doesn’t it seem the guy with the lawyer would have already filed some legal attempts to resolve it – if it really existed (I seem to recall an article stating he waved around a folder and used the wording “may contain”).
        In any case, if there was something “actionable”, a permit would not relieve the offender from any potential remediation requirements. Plus it sounds like the lead fuel is going away within a year or so and new tanks are being installed anyway.
        As for the zoning…the airport was there before the residential zoning and should probably have not been included in it to begin with.
        Perhaps the town might consider an Airport Overlay District keeping the property bound by its current property lines so no abutting neighbors have opportunity to sell land that could potentially be used as a new runway (I am not against reasonable restrictions).

  3. Rick Boynton says:

    Classic case of NIMBY !

  4. Wendy Linscott says:

    Excellent editorial – the voice of quiet reason. Well said and not a moment too soon.

  5. Patrick Fennell says:

    Wonder how many people that were airlifted to healthcare facilities or had emergency supplies shipped to them are against the airport that has not only been a good neighbor but a very good resource for the public good. And would the NIMBYs pay extra on property taxes if they do handcuff the airport and future businesses. Right now a few neighbors close by are getting very favorable treatment in property taxes. Multi-millionaires can do quite well in GB

  6. Joseph Method says:

    I agree with the Edge on this.

  7. Carl Stewart says:

    “Helen’s” opposition might carry some weight if she were willing to forego anonymity. She claims not to live anywhere near the airport but how do we readers verify this? Despite frequent calls for The Edge to require transparency, it continues to allow commenters who might have ulterior motives to shield their identities. If people want to take a position on a subject of interest, they should either have the courage of their convictions or be quiet.

    1. dennis irvine says:

      Carl;

      I think your understanding of the role of anonymous speech in a free and democratic society is limited and/or poorly thought out. The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States itself. As a former prosecutor it seems you should have a more nuanced understanding of this bedrock right we all share. Here is a quote and link to get you started on a more clear and distinct perspective:

      “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”

      https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity

      Do you need to know my address, where I went to college, what branch of the military I served in to ‘calibrate’ the veracity of my comment too?

  8. Jonathan Hankin says:

    Just to clarify a couple of misconceptions…
    The Water Quality Protection Overlay District specifically prohibits the expansion of legally pre-existing non-conforming uses. It is for this reason that the airport must get a special permit which would make them conform to current zoning. Once conforming, they may apply for a special permit to add the hangars. That special permit is required because the airport already exceeds the 15% threshold of impervious area in the WQPOD which is one of the triggers for a special permit. Any future expansion of impermeable area (such as hangars) would require a new special permit.
    The removal of the underground bulk fuel tanks is also a requirement of the WQPOD, which apparently the applicant is intending to do and will, hopefully, be made a condition of the special permit.
    There are many federal regulations regarding airports. I suspect that many of the limitations that abutters have suggested should be imposed regarding air traffic would not be allowed under federal regulations.
    Full disclosure: I am an abutter to the airport and have no problem with the proposed hangars. I am, and have been, a member of the GB Planning Board for 20 years (recusing myself in re the airport). At the urging of the Mass DEP, I drafted, in concert with them and town counsel, the WQPOD which was passed by the Annual Town Meeting.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Thank you for the clarifications, Johnathan. Also for sharing your opinion of the situation.

    2. joe says:

      Mr. Hankin are you also the planning board member who added to the definition section of the bylaw in 2011 a Very Small Quantity Generator as any entity public or private other than residential and made an exemption for that Small Generator in the Water Quality Protection Overlay District 9.2.7 Prohibited Uses and Activities. To be in compliance with the WQPOD section 9.2.13 no. 5.3 one has to have an EPA identification number from the DEP to be a Very Small Generator. 78 E.G.R.is the only property in the WQPOD that has such an identification number other than Simon’s Rock and the Egremont Transfer Station so ah ha ha Claudia Shapiro 78 E.G.R.

  9. Dan says:

    Well written article with sound conclusions. I see the new hangers to be reasonable while most of the restrictions requested as not. Investment and expansion of business should be supported and not weighed down by the interests of the few regretting they bought next to an airport, freeway, etc. and would rather choke the enterprise out of existence. Why no food/retail? Are the concerns really over traffic volume on a state road? please…

  10. Dan Lipson says:

    Thank you for your very sensible position. The airport serves the community well and adds to GB’s charm. As a former pilot who learned to fly here and visited many airports over the years, it is ridiculous to eliminate services and not allow some expansion for their survival and well being. The airport owners/manager contribute to our community in many ways from the Bike n Fly to assisting in medical emergencies. Give them their hangers. We may never have a train so let’s at least keep our airport.

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