Great Barrington — In a rural residential area surrounded by corn and hay fields and rolling vistas, owners of what is now a small-town airport have expansion plans that have neighbors flooding town officials with emails opposing the project.
Berkshire Aviation Enterprises Inc. (BAE) is asking the town for a special permit for three new, prefabricated metal hangars 147 feet long by 50 feet wide, 18 parking spaces, a new taxi way and an access road off Seekonk Cross Road.
But since the Walter J. Koladza Airport doesn’t technically have a permit to exist since it was built before the town had zoning regulations, it will go to the Selectboard Monday (Feb. 13) for that official stamp of compliance before it presents its expansion plans. Right now, it sits in a residential zone.
The owners are getting these affairs in order in preparation for their bigger ask of the Selectboard next week after the Planning Board gave it a thumbs up recommendation. Board chair Brandee Nelson had suggested a balloon test to get a sense of the building height and footprint and that will happen later this week.
But neighbors say the increase in aviation activity and ground traffic will seriously alter the feel – and possibly the safety – of the area.
Mike Peretti has lived there for 53 years,and says he’s never had any concerns about the airport until the last four to five years. “Things are bulging at the seams,” he said. “There’s heavier usage, private helicopters – the military is using it pretty regularly at night.”
There are also concerns that their special permit will allow future expansion. And since the airport is close to the Green River and aquifer, the town’s water supply, there are concerns that even the 500-foot setback from the river won’t totally protect it from a bigger, busier airport and more runoff potential.
“What are we doing here?” Peretti said. “What do we want this to be? Once you start going to the next level, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Seekonk Cross Road resident Joseph Krummel wrote to the Selectboard with these further concerns about the airport expansion, among others. BAE’s plans, he wrote, “will turn this “country airfield” into a sterile commercial airport. It sounds like semantics, but one can envision what will come next, such as security fencing, a widened runway, newly paved and lighted taxiways, the additional hangars with flood-lights, and new lighting for not just flight operations but also for the parking lots, access roads, and additional buildings. And of course accompanying this expansion will be the increase in flight operations from larger aircraft that will use the modernized facilities as a private charter operation.”
But part owner Thomas Vigneron, a flight instructor and charter pilot, told The Edge things aren’t going to change that much given the limitations of a 2,500-foot (half-mile) runway that has pilots often choosing to land in Pittsfield.
“It will still be a fun little airport,” he said, noting that the plan for new hangars is in response to airplane owners who are using tie-downs outside and have asked for indoor space.
Vigneron said while, yes, this expansion would accommodate more planes, it wouldn’t be by much. But he did say that asking the town for a special permit will keep BAE from having to return to the town each time it wants to add something.
Right now around 50 airplanes are tied down on the field alongside Route 71 where there is a parking area, administrative office and self-fueling area.
“It’s mostly to accommodate our existing customers who have been asking for this for a long time, because they have a fair amount of money invested in their aircraft and want to store them inside.”
He also said some second homeowners have said they would keep their planes here “if we had a nice hangar.”
Vigneron, a Great Barrington native, said the hangars would have internal dividers to give each airplane its own space and door.
He further said the roughly $4 million in BAE’s grant requests to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) do not appear to be coming through. But he said MassDOT would likely pay for 80 percent of paving and other costs and, several years ago, funded an $80,000 runway rehab because it is for free public use. He said the state wouldn’t help BAE build hangars, however.
He said the expansion was one financial strategy to help the airport break even. He said BAE makes money right now from the maintenance shop and fuel sales, with overnight tie-down fees for transient pilots. He said BAE does not get income from the military for practice runs.
And it is this “presence of Blackhawks for training” and “the large volume of student pilots,” along with the added threat to the water supply that worries Marcia Stamell.
The plan, she wrote in an email to the Selectboard, may add safety risks, “will pollute the air, and will undermine both the view-shed and the quiet nature of a modest, close-knit neighborhood.”
She called it “a pilot’s expanded playground” without any benefits to the town, like jobs. “It will just cheapen a part of town for private profit and the convenience of a select few.”