CHATHAM — With federal regulators now firmly in their corner, selectmen are vowing to come out swinging when a suit brought by skydiving opponents goes to trial in March.
Saying they were acting in the benefit of public transparency, the board issued a statement announcing its position following an hour-long closed-door session Monday evening.
The town has been in litigation over the issue of skydiving for four years, board Chairman Cory Metters said, and has had an open dialogue with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Massachusetts Aeronautics Division. On Dec. 18, the FAA responded to the town’s request to weigh in on the safety of skydiving at Chatham Airport by issuing a report that concludes that, with some minor mitigation efforts, Chatham Municipal Airport is safe for skydiving.
“In essence, the FAA – which, under the United States Constitution, has preemptive authority in this area – has told the town of Chatham that, one, skydiving can be safely conducted at Chatham Municipal Airport, and that, two, the town of Chatham must allow it,” Metters said, reading the statement. “We will not be spending taxpayer money to challenge the FAA on these points.”
In 2013, the town declined to renew a contract allowing Skydive Cape Cod to operate its tandem dive operations at the airport, and that prompted the FAA to order the town to allow the activity. Skydiving is considered a general aviation activity which is allowed at airports that receive federal aviation grants, like Chatham’s.
The town was sued by a group of skydiving opponents organized as the Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport, which claims skydiving represents a public nuisance and an unacceptable safety risk for those on the ground. In response to that suit, the town opted not to issue a contract to a skydiving vendor, prompting Skydive Cape Cod to file its own lawsuit, alleging breach of contract.
“Town officials have heard the concerns of those who have raised issues relative to the propriety of skydiving activities at the airport,” the statement reads. “We have retained the services and advice of outside consultants with expertise in this area of aviation operations, and as noted above, we have discussed these issues at length with federal and state regulators.” The independent consultants came to the same conclusion as the FAA: that skydiving can be a safe activity at Chatham, Metters said.
“The board of selectmen believes that the time has come to conclude the costly and time-consuming litigation spawned by the skydiving disputes as quickly and effectively as possible,” the chairman said, noting that taxpayer funds can be put to better use elsewhere. “Accordingly, selectmen have directed town counsel to take all actions necessary to bring all pending administrative and judicial proceedings relative to skydiving activity at the airport to conclusion as soon as possible. This will entail a vigorous defense of the claim [asserted] by the Citizens for a Safe Chatham Airport that resumed skydiving at the airport would constitute a nuisance activity.”
The suit is scheduled to go to trial in Barnstable Superior Court on March 12.
“We are committed to proceeding to trial at that time, without delay, for prompt and final disposition of this claim,” he said.
In taking their position, selectmen said the concerns raised by skydiving opponents were outweighed by the broader public benefits of preserving the airport’s grant partnership with the FAA. The town has received more than $6 million in FAA grants that were conditional on its agreement to allow general aviation activities at the airport.
“The Chatham Municipal Airport has been a beneficial asset to the town and its citizens and the Lower Cape Cod region from economic, public safety and public convenience perspectives, since its establishment in 1949,” the statement reads. “Airports, like many other public services and/or utility facilities do sometimes present issues or inconveniences for those residing nearby. Town officials must, however, secure and advance the overall public interests rather than the interests of a select few. In such situations, noise and other impacts are unavoidable and anticipated byproducts of airport aviation operations.”
A representative of CSCA could not be reached by deadline.