Great Barrington — Call it the storm after the calm after the storm. But there could be more trouble brewing for the Great Barrington Airport.
At a Monday meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard, nearby residents and some members of the board expressed concern about the airport’s plans to install a new underground fuel tank and some uncertainty ensued over whether the new unit required approval from the town.
Over the last couple of years, the airport has been the subject of sometimes-intense controversy, most recently over its plans to add three new hangars, a move that generated strong opposition during hearings for a special permit earlier this year.
But in a unusual move, airport officials abandoned those plans in July before they could be voted on by town officials, even though the airport had already spent considerable sums of money on lawyers and consultants.
As part of the now-abandoned agreement, the airport had offered to replace the underground tanks with above-ground tanks in deference to neighbors and others concerned about the property’s location near a drinking-water source in an aquifer-protection zone next to the Green River.
Now that it is unbound by the conditions of a special permit that was never obtained, the airport has evidently changed its mind and decided to replace the underground tanks, which are typically replaced every 20 years, with a new underground tank.
The current controversy centers on whether the airport needs a special permit in order to proceed with the tank replacement. Also of concern is the system of fuel distribution while the old tanks are being replaced. Neighbors say a pair of fuel trucks parked near the runway are currently functioning as aviation fuel tanks until the new tanks are installed and functioning, creating a situation they say is unsafe and environmentally questionable.
“In late October after they removed the underground tanks, they showed up with two avgas trucks,” Seekonk Road resident Joseph Krummel told the board, referring to the trade name for aviation fuel. “They parked on the tarmac there by the old disabled pump. There was no containment system, no fire suppression, no barriers to keep planes from running into them. There are two trucks with maybe a couple thousand gallons of avgas sitting there.”
Krummel, who in a previous meeting called airport officials “clowns,” sent a letter in October to building inspector Edwin May detailing what he said were “serious violations” regarding the tanker trucks.
May responded formally with a letter dated about three weeks later. He essentially said he did not see “any ongoing unlawful use of the property,” in part because the property is a “pre-existing nonconforming use.”
The airport on Egremont Plain Road was built before the town established its first zoning code in 1931: It is indeed a pre-existing nonconforming use. But an expansion of a nonconforming use typically requires a special permit from the Great Barrington Zoning Board of Appeals or, in some cases, from the selectboard itself.
Both Krummel, Selectman Ed Abrahams and Great Barrington Planning Board alternate member Pedro Pachano cited specific portions of the town zoning code in support of their contention that a special permit is needed. Click here to see the town’s current zoning bylaw (it’s 160 pages long, so happy reading).
They cited Section 9.2.12 as triggering the requirement of a special permit because the project includes the “alteration or enlargement of existing uses that do not conform” with the water quality protection overlay district and the “handling of toxic or hazardous materials in quantities greater than those associated with normal household use.”
Also cited was a section on underground tanks, 9.2.11, which, Pachano said, “implies that anyone having anything do with underground storage tanks must apply for special permit.”
“My immediate concern is the [fuel] trucks,” Abrahams said. “Any fuel storage has to have 110-percent containment under it. How that’s okay, I don’t understand. If something happens, there nothing between that truck and the ground.”
“My concern is we have one drinking water source, and if you have one accident that’s it,” added Krummel. “The publicity will shut down the town, we will lose our tourism — not to mention we’re going to have gasoline in our drinking water.”
The Edge reached out to airport officials for comment. Joe Solan, son of airport co-owner Richard Solan, declined to comment. He referred questions to other airport officials, none of whom were available Wednesday afternoon.
After listening to the three men, selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton said it sounded to him like the airport needed a special permit. Krummel said it was his understanding that, for the tank replacement, the airport was only engaged in a permitting process with the state Department of Environmental Protection and not through the town.
Abrahams said he has heard of cases in the state in which underground tanks were ordered removed because they were not installed according to proper procedure.
“We’d love to avoid that,” he said. “Why don’t we let them know that we expect them to come here?”
“It’s important for the board to express what its directions are,” town manager Jennifer Tabakin explained. “If the board wants to give advice, that’s your prerogative.”
Stanton suggested Tabakin return to next Monday’s meeting with information on “whether any change within the water quality protection overlay zone requires a special permit.” His colleagues all agreed.
In addition to airing environmental concerns, nearby residents have long complained of noise emanating from the airport, especially on weekends when recreational pilots hit the skies.
At one hearing in June, percussionist and 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.