Airport officials, opponents spar again during rowdy hearing on expansion plans

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By Tuesday, Jun 13 News  18 Comments
Terry Cowgill
Airport attorney Lori Robbins makes her case before the Great Barrington Selectboard on Monday, June 12.

Great Barrington — If it seems as if the saga of the Walter J. Koladza Airport never ends, that’s because it’s true. The public hearing on the airport expansion had been continued for the fourth time. After last night (June 12), it will be five. Last week, airport officials hosted planning board members for a site visit to Egremont Plain Road to see exactly where the proposed three new hangars will go.

The Great Barrington Selectboard discusses its options during Monday's hearing. From left: Chairman Sean Stanton, Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bannon, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams, and Bill Cooke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Great Barrington Selectboard discusses its options during Monday’s hearing. From left: Chairman Sean Stanton, Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bannon, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams, and Bill Cooke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The latest episode saw the public hearing on the airport’s quest for three new hangars continued to July 10, but only after the selectboard, which, at times, appeared overwhelmed by the complexities and competing interests, heard from both sides of the controversial proposal, with noisy airport antagonists drowning out proponents.

At one point, Pumpkin Hill Road resident James Weber said he was frustrated with the noise of the planes and, detecting a lack of sympathy, took out a whistle and blew it as loud as he could to simulate the decibel levels of the “dozens and dozens of planes that fly over my property” on Sundays.

After five seconds of ear-splitting blowing, Weber, a founding percussionist and leader of the Berkshire Bateria, promptly left the selectmen’s meeting room, leaving dozens of stunned officials and audience members in his wake.

Percussionist and Pumpkin Hill Road resident James Weber, right, blows a whistle to simulate what he says is the unacceptable level of noise caused by planes taking off and landing near his house. An unidentified audience member, left, calls for Weber's removal from the selectmen's meeting room. Photo: CTSB

Percussionist and Pumpkin Hill Road resident James Weber, right, blows a whistle to simulate what he says is the unacceptable level of noise caused by planes taking off and landing near his house. An unidentified audience member, left, calls for Weber’s removal from the selectmen’s meeting room.
Photo: CTSB

Weber wrote a letter to the editor of The Edge last week opposing the proposed expansion of the airport, which he described as “insular, unapproachable and unaffordable by the vast majority of residents of the Berkshires.”

Airport attorney Lori Robbins returned to reassure the board that her clients were indeed still seeking a special permit. Last month, airport partner Jim Jacobs told the board at another session he wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue the permit anymore because “we have suffered a lot of abuse … [and] feel beaten down by this permit.”

“Berkshire Aviation is moving forward,” Robbins said Monday night, referring to the Great Barrington airport’s ownership.

Robbins touted the economic benefits the airport offers the town, but that did not satisfy neighbors who are concerned about the airport’s sale and use of leaded fuel.

Several, including Marc Fasteau and his attorney Rich Dohoney, insisted that, within six months of the issuance of a special permit, the airport must conduct a Phase II environmental assessment before building permits are issued. He also wanted the sale of leaded fuel at the airport to stop and that “there be no restaurants or food service conducted at the premises.”

Airport manager Ken Krentsa and Robbins. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Airport manager Ken Krentsa and Robbins. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The onus is on airport to prove to us that it’s not a problem,” selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton said when airport officials insisted there was no lead contamination.

Fasteau said he had the water tested in the house he shares at 77 Seekonk Cross Rd. with his wife, Anne Fredericks, and found “actionable” levels of lead, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at both the wellhead and inside the house. That was but one of the proposed conditions Fasteau and Dohoney put forth.

“Have a licensed professional go out there and do an inspection,” Dohoney told the board. “You can require a third-party review that includes testing so we can put this issue to bed.”

Also among those conditions is that the runways not be lengthened (the owners have said this is impossible anyway, given the constraints of the property). Dohoney also listed limits on retail activities, including at the flight school and the aircraft repair business; limits on the number of aircraft housed at the airport (50); and restrictions on military helicopter activity (airport officials have said they have no control over this).

Neighbor Marc Fasteau explains his skepticism towards the project. Photo: Terry Gowgill

Neighbor Marc Fasteau explains his skepticism towards the project. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Since the last hearing, town planner Chris Rembold had assembled his own list of proposed conditions (see copy below). Some of Rembold’s conditions were consistent with Fasteau’s, including the requirement that all underground fuel tanks must be lawfully removed (the airport has since said it would remove them in August and replace them with above-ground tanks).

But the selectmen seemed to struggle the most with conditions 11 through 14. Those conditions included a limit on flight-school planes to four in the air at any given time, no more than 75 planes stored on the premises at one time and no more than an average of “150 daily airport operations on an annual basis.”

Airport manager Ken Krentsa and co-owner Rick Solan deemed those conditions “unacceptable.” They had similar feelings for another restriction that limited future expansion without a special permit and the other one that restricted food services activity without additional permits.

“That’s ridiculous,” Krentsa said. “If we want to bring in a food truck, we have to get a special permit?”

Selectman Ed Abrahams makes a point as colleague Dan Bailly listens. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Selectman Ed Abrahams makes a point as colleague Dan Bailly listens. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Imposing conditions that won’t allow [the airport] to operate does not help the community,” Robbins, the airport attorney, said. “I understand it’s a tough decision. It’s a balancing act.”

The airport was built before the town established its first zoning code in 1931. It is therefore a pre-existing, nonconforming use and the site lies in an aquifer protection zone next to the Green River. Any expansion requires a special permit from the selectmen.

However, the zoning bylaws also require that an aviation field in a R-4 residential zone obtain a special permit, which the airport never was compelled to apply for because of its grandfathered status.

But the airport took the unusual step of voluntarily applying after the fact for the special permit, which includes the proposal to add the new hangars “in order to quell any concerns about the legal status of use of the property as an airport,” Robbins said at the first hearing.

A frustrated Seekonk Cross Road resident, Joseph Krummel, glared from the podium at Krentza, Solan and Robbins.

“They don’t know how to manage an airport,” he said. “They’re clowns.”

Fasteau attorney Rich Dohoney. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Fasteau attorney Rich Dohoney. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“So I’m a clown now?” Krentsa shouted from his chair.

Selectman Dan Bailly admonished Krummell, adding that, “It gets me worked up when you start offending people.”

After listening to another neighbor complain, Krentsa said, “It appears that since we have wanted the hangars, the airport is suddenly noisier.” He insisted there has been no appreciable increase in the noise level over the year and a half that he has been managing the airport.

Selectman Ed Abrahams suggested looking at what other towns have done to regulate small airports and have Town Hall staff research how the food service and restaurant issue could be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to continue the public hearing. Stanton, a veteran of four years on the planning board and almost 10 on the selectboard, described the whole affair as “probably the most challenging special permit I’ve ever dealt with.”

“We’re trying to balance your commercial interests with the needs of a residential neighborhood,” he told airport officials. “So far it seems we’re doing a good job because no one’s happy with us.”

A draft of the town's proposed airport conditions.

A draft of the town’s proposed airport conditions.

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18 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ritch says:

    In real estate, there are three laws… location, location, location. I am curious which abutters bought next to this airport, not knowing it was there.

  2. Patrick Fennell says:

    The anti business attitude of GB never seems to end. Wonder if the NIMBYs are willing to pay higher property taxes if the airport leaves?

  3. John says:

    Too bad Walt didn’t build the hangers years ago. Would be a non issue now..
    I do hope the board recognizes that Fasteau has brought nothing to the table except incomplete and invalidated really now, what kind of solder was used in those pipes at your house anyway and what did the water test show when you bought the old house ? it is clearly all about his agenda. (How’s that new hotel doing you just built?

    Mr Weber. Gosh what can I say. What is the correlation to the whistle blowing stunt to anything? How many decibel difference is there between a 1941 piper cub and your stunt? Answer the question please. Really, how rude and baseless.
    And Mr Krummel. Please tell us about your aviation management experience or when you earned your pilots license?
    If Walt and Rocky were here, they would be truly saddened and sick at the antics of the new NIMBY’s.

    Very best wishes to the good neighbor country airport and staff, operating since 1931.

  4. Laura says:

    I was watching this meeting on TV Monday night and was truly embarrassed to be a resident of this town after seeing how some people conduct themselves in public. There was no reason to act the way they did. Did they ever think that when they bought their house near an airport that there would be a chance of planes flying around. I live near the train tracks at a crossing and we are so use to the horn blowing several times a day that it just blends in with the everyday noises. Now they get up and seem to have their ammunition ready with noise level reports, “someone they know at the DOT” reports, flight pattern reports and lead level reports.
    I hope these people condone themselves better at the next hearing or if they don’t the select board should throw them out!!

    1. John says:

      Well said Laura.
      Mr Fasteau keeps talking about actionable levels. Don’t know why he hasn’t taken the proper action yet to assess his situation….
      There is plenty of literature and government studies out there identifying the source of lead associated in drinking water being the distribution system, not the water itself.
      The whistle blowing? Simply not proper and not respectable behavior at a small town meeting. I guess tantrums can happen at any age.

  5. Gene says:

    Just as beauty is in the EYES of the beholder, noise is in the EARS of the beholder. My definition of noise pollution: The Berkshire Bateria.

  6. Helen says:

    I was also watching the hearing and I guess all of you missed a few things. The airport and the neighbors have been getting along for years. It is only since the new owners took over that there have been complaints. Increased noise, from helicopters (and not just military or emergency helicopters), from increased air traffic, and pilots ignoring the prescribed flight path, have changed the relationship.

    You could say the town is anti business if they oppose letting the airport get as large and loud as they want, or you could say the town is anti private property rights if they ignore the loss of value to local homeowners.

    The airport owners said in testimony before the Selectboard that they would never have a restaurant, and that they would never be able to land jets there. Then when the SB Suggested conditions saying no restaurant and no jets, the airport owners said at was unacceptable. No wonder the neighbors don’t trust the owners.

    As for the economic value to the town, the airport, with 90 acres, pays about $17,000 in taxes. There is no local business that depends on it. General Aviation in GB is a hobby subsidized by state and local taxes, for people who can afford half million dollar planes or $150/hr to rent.

    It isn’t just neighbors who fear unchecked growth at the airport.

    1. John says:

      Thank you for your respectful opinion and comments.
      A couple updates for you. If you look at pictures of the airport compared to 30 years ago, there are fewer airplanes now than years ago. There is less noise than in years past.
      In addition, there are not too many half million dollar airplanes there. It’s a small country airport and is staying that way. Boeing jets will never land there. Many of the airplanes cost far less than the cars of the NIMBY’s that have moved in. A piper Cherokee or cessna 150 can be had often for less than 20,000 dollars. Many of these aircraft have been handed down by family generation for a son or daughter to become the new owner and to care for.
      I applaud the town planners to have a close scrutiny and make sure any change fits character.

      However, new folks that have moved in seem to want to either forcibly close and strangle the airport (several of the most vocal are builders of luxury hotels and are in housing construction….. they obviously have other plans for their own profit if they can force closure…..)

      The changes proposed are truly minimal. A few small hangers and maybe someday a small restaurant. At the end of the day, these changes are truly negligible to the neighbors, and in fact can improve the social aspect of the area. I would enjoy riding my bike down for an ice cream cone.

      Lastly, the little airport generates far more taxes than just real estate. It is taxachusetts, after all,so there are state, federal and social security taxes generated as well as fuel sales taxes.
      Stop by some day with kids or an elderly person and watch eyes marvel at the miracle of flight!!!
      Thank you for your comments!

      1. Helen says:

        The airport owners, in the first hearing, said they needed the new hangars to protect the airplanes that can cost from $250,000 – $750,000. I assumed they were telling the truth. From what you are saying, John, they weren’t.

        They also said that jets would never land there. But when he SB tried to make that a condition, they rejected it.

        The neighbors all report that noise is more of an issue now than before. No one has testified otherwise.

        I don’t live near the airport. I live near a restaurant that has always been a restaurant but now it is louder, with frequent events that run late into the night. Am I anti business because I want to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

        We all need to respect our neighbors. None of get to do whatever we want with our property because we have all chosen to live in a community. We give up rights when we live in a community in order to protect the rights of others.

        The man who blew the whistle at the meeting was angry. You could see hear the anger in his voice. He expressed his anger by annoying a roomful of people. Is that appropriate or civilized? Of course not. Civility towards our neighbors is important. That civility, the right to enjoy their homes on a sunny weekend, is all the airport neighbors are asking.

      2. Helen says:

        Sorry, I forgot this. The owners also said, in a public hearing, that there would never be a restaurant. Was that also untrue?

        The hangars are not small or minimal, not by any definition. They are 150 feet by 50 feet and there will be three of them with space between for parking and moving airplanes.

    2. John says:

      Hi Helen
      Well it is true that many older airplanes can be quite inexpensive. There are folks out there that spend more on their lawn tractor… however, there are some small newer airplanes out there that can be quite expensive and in the range that the owners stated.

      Yes we all have a right to enjoy our homes on a weekend. However choosing to demolish a good neighbor who has been there over 85 years is with poor conscious. It is community, and there are all walks of life out there, and We all need to give and take a little.
      Frankly, all the new complaints seem to be from folks who moved in more recently who don’t understand where they moved to and trying to make it a senior center. Great Barrington is not a retirement home.
      Thank you for your comments!

  7. John H Hart says:

    I have been a visitor and patron to the GB airport since I was nine years old. My Dad based his twin rotary engine Beach 18 there – a truly noisy aircraft. Saturday I celebrated my 70th birthday. In 1996 I earned my single engine land pilot’s license at the airport and Walt was my FAA examiner for my practical flight test.
    In all those years I never heard any of these types of complaints. It seems that those who are complaining moved to the area since the airport was in operation. They moved not because of the airport but because of the quality of life the Berkshires offers. Now, it appears they are attempting to change their neighborhood to mimic where it was they came from.
    In reality, this would be a non-issue had not the owners and management of the airport come forward as a courtesy and respect to the town. I guess they opened the proverbial “can of worms” and now are paying dearly.
    As I have mentioned before in a letter to the Edge, the guys at the airport are regular nice guys. Given the chance, minus hostilities, I’m sure they can work respectfully with all involved.

    1. John says:

      I remember the Beech 18, and it’s sound was music!

      1. John H Hart says:

        John, Tail # N9X Ray. That is when I fell in love with flying thanks to Bill Wiegle. Wonder what he would think of all this banter.

  8. T.Harvey says:

    I grew up Across the Street from the Airport,we love the airport still do,I wish I still lived there,if you are complaining then why did you purchase your home near there,Really it’s not like it just Popped up!Flew in on a whim,type business,It’s like everything else,move in to a quaint area then try to change it.

  9. George Grumbach says:

    I am not familiar with, nor have a stake in this debate. But reading the Helen/John colloquy I am struck that there has been no response by airport proponents to her points that although the permit applicants agreed that there would never be jets or a restaurant, they consider these permit conditions unacceptable. Either Helen’s premise is incorrect, or there has been no explanation for the permitees’ inconsistent positions.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Any business owner who willingly ties there own hands for future revenue streams would be a fool. I can envision Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicles on the future, some of which may have jet engine thrust…short runways would not hamper their use.
      Let them run the business as they see fit…if it means a restaurant is added, so be it…what are the neighbors going to do then, complain that the aroma is too strong from burgers cooking?
      Maybe the business can look to just get their property zoned according to the use, as it apparently existed before the zoning laws. It sounds to me like the town infringed on their property use after the fact….maybe some lawyer could find legal precedent to invalidate the zoning designation assigned…
      The noise complaints are a bunch of crap…I just moved next to the railroad tracks last year…there seems to be an uptick in train traffic, maybe I should rail against the train (pun intended) because they are so loud and cause my building to shake, and they blow that darn horn…
      It’s almost as loud as the Wednesday night practice sessions I hear when that local drum corp is doing their thing pounding out some cool beats – two blocks away.
      Or the trucks I hear servicing the restaurants at early hours of the morning, often just 2 hours after the loud patrons and workers (everything sounds louder at 2am) leave these establishments.
      And that darn Church bell, ringing every hour ALL day and ALL night…and it is louder when my windows are open, ugh
      SHUT THEM ALL DOWN!! We deserve ABSOLUTE silence…I don’t care if I moved here knowing all this! It is all about me and satisfying what I want, right now!
      Seriously, get a grip…there is probably still some pristine land away from most civilization available up in Maine, or out in Alaska…maybe the likes of Mr. Fasteau should consider finding a new place out there and save himself all those foolish lawyer fees

      1. Laura says:

        Steve… said it all….my sentiments exactly!!! If they don’t like it here move back to NYC, where I think it might be quieter?? I am not sure as I have only been there once in my entire lifetime.

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