CHATHAM – Critics peppered members of the airport commission with questions and comments about three sections of the Chatham Airport Master Plan Update during a three-plus-hour meeting last week, likely a dress rehearsal for a community forum on the entire plan scheduled for Tuesday.
The commission is bringing in former Yarmouth town administrator Robert Lawton to serve as moderator for the Nov. 12 forum and has set strict guidelines for the session. The last two airport commission meetings have included pointed exchanges between members of the public and commissioners as well as audience outbursts and accusations that the commission was misleading the public.
Commission Chair Peter Donovan assured the 100 or so people at last Tuesday's meeting that their comments about the master plan update are being taken seriously and that the commission will issue responses before finalizing the document. At the Nov. 12 session, the commission will accept input on the entire plan, taking comments and questions under advisement for consideration at future meetings. Donovan said Lawton was brought in on the advice of town staff as a facilitator to keep the meeting on track.
Several items deferred from last Monday's meeting will be addressed next Tuesday as well, including action on two of the three sections of the plan reviewed at that session. The commission approved one section last week dealing with recycling and waste reductions.
The other two sections that were reviewed Oct. 28 involved the schedule of improvements and financial self-sustainability. The commission did not take comments on the most controversial recommendations in the plan, which involves a change in the inclement weather approach to the airfield from a circling pattern to a straight-in approach. Critics say that will allow more planes to land in Chatham at lower elevations and increase noise in neighborhoods within the flight pattern, while the commission said the proposed approach is used at most other community airports and is safer than the current system used by pilots to land in bad weather. There has also been criticism of the need to trim trees and require homeowners to sign air easements at a cost in the millions of dollars.
At last week's meeting, the commission was criticized for not have rent acceleration clauses in hangar leases and for not having projections for revenue.
A number of people also expressed skepticism a 2019 Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aviation Division economic study that set the total employment related to the airport at 156, the total payroll at $4.7 million, and the total economic output at $13.9 million. David Bixby said when he tried to get the data behind the figures of a previous state economic report on the airport, he was told that it had been destroyed. He's still trying to get the data behind the most recent study.
“I don't know that I would put a lot behind this MassDOT study,” Bixby said. “I don't have a lot of confidence.”
Elaine Gibbs called the statistics “very misleading.” The components in the master plan will result in more and more people using the facility who have no interest in Chatham, she claimed.
“I think there's other ways to generate revenue without us potentially turning into a regional airport,” she said.
Nicole Stern said capital improvements made at the airport in the past decade have made it busier and noisier. “Now people are paying attention. Maybe it's time that we do look at it differently,” she said.
“This is our home,” she added, “we don't have another place that we go away to.”
The master plan update, designed to look at the airport needs over a 20-year period, is a framework for concepts that may or may not be implemented in the future, said Matt Caron of Gale Associates. “It in no way, shape or form commits the [Federal Aviation Administration], MassDOT or the town to funding any of the proposed or planned projects in this master plan,” he said. The facility improvements in the plan—ranging from short-term improvements such as purchase of a new pickup truck and plow for $100,000 to a long-term plan to rebuild the runway at $4.1 million—will be examined on an annual basis as to need and cost.
“Every year these projects are getting re-evaluated to make sure the demand is there,” he said.
Bixby, however, warned that if something is in a plan like this, “most often than not it happens.”
“If it wasn't important or significant, why would all this be here?” he said.
The Nov. 12 meeting will take place at 5 p.m. at the community center.