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

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 heard from both sides of the controversial proposal, with noisy airport antagonists drowning out proponents.

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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