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Terry Cowgill
At a May 15 meeting, Selectman Ed Abrahams reads an email he received from Anne Fredericks objecting to the proposed Berkshire Balloon Festival at the Great Barrington airport. At left is selectboard member Steve Bannon. At right are colleagues Kate Burke and Leigh Davis.

Selectmen put the kibosh on plans for ‘mini Woodstock’ hot-air balloon festival at airport

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By Thursday, May 16, 2019 News 1

Great Barrington — With one aggrieved neighbor describing it as “mini Woodstock,” a multi-day festival slated for late August at the Great Barrington airport featuring hot-air balloons, live music, wrestling, alcohol and amusement-park rides was shut down last night by the selectboard before it even got off the ground.

The Northeast Balloon Festival, which currently runs a similar festival in Northampton, was planning the three-day Berkshire Balloon Festival from Aug. 23-25 at the Walter J. Koladza Airport on Egremont Plain Road. Promoters expected the event to attract anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people over three days.

Newly sworn-in Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis, right, questions balloon festival representative Veronica Parsloe at a May 15 meeting. At left is selectboard member Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Balloon festival representative Veronica Parsloe emphasized to the selectboard on Wednesday night the family-oriented nature of the 10-balloon event, adding that it would feature more than 30 of the region’s food and craft vendors, along with “libations, live music, amusements and kids’ activities.”

Necessary police details would be paid for by the festival, not the town. Activities, in some cases, would continue until 10 p.m. There would be several portable toilets. Parking would be on the airport grounds and would include vehicle spaces for “a few thousand at the most,” Parsloe said. Contrary to rumors, the would be no fireworks or helicopters, as there are at some of the festival’s other events. Click here to see the plans the festival submitted to the town.

“For me, it seems like it’s a lot more than just balloons,” said newly elected selectboard member Leigh Davis.

But in the end, it was simply too much to ask of the board, especially after receiving several emails from neighbors who complained loudly that allowing the event would be a “slippery slope” and that the neighborhood near the airport was too densely populated.

See video below of Northeast Balloon Festival representative Veronica Parsloe making her unsuccessful pitch to the selectboard Wednesday night:

“I wanted to raise a serious alarm about the proposed Berkshire Balloon Festival,” wrote South Egremont Road resident Marcia Stamell, pronouncing herself “flabbergasted” that the town would consider signing off on such event “in a populated area.”

Stamell also expressed concern about the culture of the crowds who frequent these kinds of events, adding that some have dubbed it “cocaine and propane.”

“It’s a very irresponsible proposal and its approval could put our town, as well as our citizens, at risk,” Stamell added.

Children play at one of the Northeast Balloon Festival’s events at the Hampshire Dome in Milford, N.H. Photo courtesy Northeast Balloon Festival

Anne Fredericks, a neighbor who has been critical of the airport in the past, wrote that the Berkshire Balloon Festival has “a misleading title.”

“In fact, this would be a mini Woodstock that happens to also have hot-air balloons,” Fredericks wrote, referring to the legendary popular-music festival in the Hudson Valley that took place 50 years ago this August. “Since balloons only take off at dawn and dusk, the primary activity would be loud music, selling food and booze with other entertainments in a residential neighborhood.”

Parsloe explained that hot-air balloons are considered aviation, those who guide the balloons are considered pilots and activity is therefore regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Steve Bannon, who was re-elected Tuesday and reappointed chairman of the selectboard at the beginning of the meeting, noted that since the airport does not conform to town zoning bylaws, in most cases, it needs to obtain a special permit for events unless it’s an “aviation-related event.”

“I can’t even believe you would consider doing this,” said Egremont Plain Road resident Lana Israel, whose property abuts the airport. “This is our backyard. It’s a quiet neighborhood. This is a residential area never meant to be an entertainment area.”

At a May 15 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting, Egremont Plain Road resident Lana Israel is incredulous that the Berkshire Balloon Festival proposal is being considered. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Some had suggested the festival be held at the largely dormant Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Parsloe rejected that idea. She said the fairgrounds, notwithstanding its larger size, “is not an ideal location” because it’s not uncommon for balloons to have to abort a takeoff. Such an action would be far easier at the airport.

“If balloons take off [at the fairgrounds] and they need to make a landing right away, they either land at Big Y or in the hills,” Parsloe explained.

“I have grave concerns about bringing 5,000 to 10,000 people into a residential neighborhood to do this,” Bannon told Parsloe. “I think you probably run a great event … I just think it’s in the wrong area.”

Selectboard member Kate Burke said when she first heard about the proposed event, her children were very excited about it. She noted that the airport does host some events every year for the Rotary such as the annual Bike-N-Fly, but the balloon festival, as proposed, is simply a bridge too far.

“We just feel like maybe this is just too big … for the space,” Burke said. The board then voted unanimously to reject the festival’s application for an outdoor entertainment license. A man accompanying Parsloe then stormed out of the room.

There has been ongoing friction between neighbors and the owners of the airport over its plans to construct new hangars and its practice of storing fuel in above-ground vehicles while underground tanks were being replaced. In addition, the airport property sits near a drinking-water source in an aquifer-protection zone next to the Green River.


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One Comment   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    Too bad. Sounds like it would have been a fun even. We do look forward to the bike and fly event!
    GB airport is the best!

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