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

As proposed, the airport's plans are entirely reasonable, given its need to remain viable and its history of good citizenship.

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.