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Amid an atmosphere of mistrust, airport revives plan for more hangars

The airport proposes to construct six new hangars, while removing the existing clamshell hangar.

Great Barrington — For the last several years, the relationship between the owners of the Great Barrington Airport and its neighbors has been marked by tension and a lack of trust.

That relationship did not change appreciably after a neighborhood meeting Tuesday night at the Fairfield Inn, in which airport representatives announced their intention to revive a plan for additional hangars that had lain dormant for more than two years.

At a May 15, 2017, meeting, Great Barrington Airport partner Jim Jacobs told the selectboard, “I don’t want a special permit.” At right are airport attorney Lori Robbins and engineer Ralph Stanton. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Civil engineer Jim Scalise of SK Design Group told the 25 or so people in attendance that the airport’s owners were planning to essentially resubmit their original plans that were abandoned in 2017.

At that time, frustrated airport co-owner Jim Jacobs, after months of planning, stunned the selectboard and the audience in Town Hall, wearily admitting that he had had enough and was throwing in the towel: “I don’t want a special permit.”

The application was withdrawn “without prejudice,” which means without any loss or waiver of rights or privileges. In response to a public outcry at that time, airport officials had scaled back their original proposal and sought to build only three new hangars at the facility west of town on Route 71.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Scalise mistakenly told the audience the airport was resubmitting the last plan filed with the town, which included three new hangars. But the schematic drawing he showed included six new hangars, which upset some in the audience who suggested they had been deceived.

See video of the neighborhood meeting called to discuss plans for new hangars and a new access driveway for the Great Barrington Airport:

But Scalise calmed nerves by telling attendees that he had just been hired by the owners of the Walter J. Koladza Airport, its official name, to steward the project and that he was not aware that the last plan filed with the town called for only three hangars.

In addition, a show of hands indicated only a few people in the audience had received a notice about the meeting. But Scalise’s colleague Sarah Gapinski said notices were sent out to neighbors who lived within 500 feet of the airport property, whereas state law for special permits only required 300 feet.

At an Oct. 29 meeting, Anne Fredericks listens as her husband Marc Fasteau asks a question of SK Design Group’s Jim Scalise about the proposed changes to the Great Barrington Airport. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“You didn’t make this meeting public,” said Anne Fredericks, who lives with her husband, Marc Fasteau, at 77 Seekonk Cross Road. “There are four people in this room who got notices.”

Of the plans Scalise presented, she said, “This is not what was presented; this is a whole new project.”

“This looks to me like a huge expansion,” added Lana Israel, an abutter.

It was that kind of night.

“Our project hasn’t really changed,” Scalise replied. “I know there has been a lot of controversy and debate. Our goal is to build hangars.”

Fredericks and Fasteau also expressed concerns about lead contamination from aviation fuel, known as “avgas,” stored and sold at the airport. Three years ago, the two had suggested the airport was responsible for elevated levels of lead in the drinking water at their home. Indeed, Fasteau said his tests found “actionable” levels of lead, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A flag marks the previous location of the proposed hangars on the north side of the airport property. Photo: Heather Bellow

Scalise wasn’t exactly full of details, insisting he was trying to find “a middle ground” when he briefed the audience on the project. But there was a reason for that. Scalise explained that he was prepared to listen to the concerns of town residents and take those concerns into account when preparing a more detailed plan, rather than drafting a plan and being forced to go back to the drawing board several times.

“But you’re the expert, you’re presenting,” Fasteau insisted. “It’s your job to come up with a list of issues that should concern or may concern the neighbors.”

“I’m here to try to understand,” Scalise replied. “I know there’s a lot of history and I’m trying to be respectful of your frustration level.”

Scalise and project architect Mike Valenti explained the project, which they estimated would cost around $2 million, in relatively broad terms. The airport proposes to construct six new hangars, while removing the existing clamshell hangar.

Architect Mike Valenti answers a question from the audience about the proposed changes to the Great Barrington Airport at an Oct. 29 meeting. In front of him is airport manager Joe Solan. At right is civil engineer Sarah Gapinski. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Currently, the airport has 24 existing aircraft stored in the lone hangar, and 28 stored on grass adjacent to the runway (called “tie downs“). The project will provide as many as 54 in-shelter aircraft spaces.

The tie-down customers have requested to be stored in these new hangars, Scalise said, so the airport does not anticipate a significant increase in traffic — either air or vehicular — as a result of the project. Scalise could not say, however, whether the project would eliminate tie-down customers altogether.

Five of the six hangars, which will be sited north of the runway outside the buffer zone of the Green River, are proposed to be 18 feet high and with dimensions of 147 feet by 50 feet. The sixth will be slightly smaller. A new access driveway will be built to connect the new hangars to Seekonk Cross Road.

See image below of the drawing of the proposed project by SK Design:

Other neighbors, including Marcia Stammell and Holly Hamer, asked some pointed questions of Scalise. Hamer had concerns about the environment, noise, safety, fairness and the airport’s continued use as an event space. She even provided an outline of those concerns to a reporter.

At an Oct. 29 meeting, Great Barrington Airport neighbor Marcia Stamell had some pointed questions for engineer Jim Scalise of SK Design Group. At right is Holly Hamer, another neighbor. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Fasteau asked Scalise how the permitting process will work this time around. The engineer explained that the airport owners have two options, the first being to apply for a special permit through the selectboard. Once the permit is granted, the new hangars would be considered an accessory and would then be allowed by right. The second option would be to go before the zoning board of appeals for expansion of a “pre-existing nonconforming use.”

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 the town’s Water Quality Protection Overlay District next to the Green River. Any expansion requires a special permit.

Scalise said he thinks another meeting is in order before the airport moves forward. That meeting might happen in a few weeks. He emphasized that the airport has not yet submitted a plan to the town.

“There has been no application made, so we’re here talking about a project that we’re contemplating,” Scalise said.

“I’m willing to bend over backwards to make this work. I’m not sure I can do it. I’m willing to have another meeting and invite more people. That’s the best we can do and maybe this project doesn’t come to fruition,” he said.

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