Airport Meeting Moved Amid Controversy Over Master Plan

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Municipal Airport. Next week's airport commission meeting will focus on elements of the draft master plan update which are being misinterpreted. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – A flurry of controversy over elements of the latest draft of the Chatham Municipal Airport Master Plan has officials expecting a larger crowd than usual at the airport commission's next meeting.

The Sept. 30 meeting will take place in the large meeting room at the community center rather than the small meeting room at the annex, where the commission usually meets. The session starts at 5 p.m.

According to a press release announcing the change issued by town officials Monday, the meeting will focus on clarifying concerns that have been raised about the potential for expansion of the airport based on changes to the master plan, which is being updated. At issue is a proposal to change the airport's approach pattern during poor weather, which could require the town to take air space easements from some property owners. Some have suggested that the plan will increase airport traffic, allow larger planes to use the airport, and result in regional or commercial airline use of the George Ryder Road facility.

Town officials took the unusual step of posting a series of frequently asked questions questions about the master plan update on the airport commission page of the town's website.

According to the FAQs, the master plan draft does not recommend expansion of the airport. Currently, the “critical” or “design” aircraft upon which infrastructure at the Chatham Airport is based is a Beech Baron B-58, “the most demanding aircraft regularly using Chatham Airport,” according to the FAQs. That will not change. There are infrastructure improvements recommended in the plan, including additional hangars and fuel facilities, but no expansion or lengthening of the 3,001-foot runway, which controls the size of aircraft that can land at the airport.

What touched off concerns, seen in recent weeks in multiple letters to the editor and online discussions, is a proposal to change the instrument approach during poor weather conditions. The current instrument approach takes pilots to lower altitudes before requiring that they circle until they can visually land. The new system, known as non-precision approach with vertical guidance uses more precise GPS which allows pilots to land more safely in poor visibility. This would allow the airport to decommission obsolete instrument approach technology; currently, Chatham is the only airport in the state using this non-directional beacon technology.

The non-precision instrument approach is safer and will reduce noise, airport officials say. Federal Aviation Administration regulations also requires a 3,200-foot runway for its use, but the town has no intention of lengthening the runway and will therefore require that the FAA approve a “modification of standards” before the plan is implemented.

The FAQs emphasize that adding the new instrument approach system will not change the size and type of aircraft using the airport.

The FAQ page can be viewed at www.chatham-ma.gov/airport-commission/pages/airport-related-documents.

The commission is in the process of reviewing the draft of the master plan, which can be found on its webpage. A public hearing will be held on the document before it is submitted to the FAA for approval.

Next week's meeting will be recorded and broadcast on Channel 18 and will be available for on-demand viewing on the town's website.

The Federal Aviation Administration also announced this week that the town had received a $3,007,521 grant to reconstruct the existing parallel taxiway and taxi lanes at the airport. The work replaces and does not expand existing pavement. The project was included in the previous airport master plan completed in 2003. At the 2018 annual town meeting, voters appropriated $111,250 for the town's share of the work.