CHATHAM — At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the airport commission convened a special listening session on the divisive airport master plan update. Three-and-a-half hours later, most attendees seemed to be even more strongly opposed to the plan, calling it potentially costly, unsafe and unnecessary.
Near the end of the session, board of selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis criticized the commission for staunchly defending the plan rather than fully considering the concerns raised by residents.
“This meeting tonight started at five, and it was an hour and 15 minutes before the first person got the opportunity to speak,” she said. “This was supposed to be a listening session.”
The session started with airport commissioner Rene Haas answering some frequently asked questions about the proposal, which seeks, among other things, to adjust the approaches to the runway during poor weather to allow planes a straight, gradual descent guided by GPS rather than the existing circling approach. If adopted by the FAA and funded by town taxpayers, the change would likely require the trimming of vegetation to expand a safety zone below the glide path at either end of the runway. A number of properties would likely need to be subject to air navigation easements for this purpose, and implementing the plan could cost upwards of $5.4 million.
The plan does not call for homes to be torn down, Haas said, and if that became a recommendation, the plan would be rejected by the airport commission. Aircraft will not fly lower than they do currently under the new approach, and fewer homes would be subjected to noise during poor weather landings, since circling would no longer be required. The plan would not encourage more jets to use the airport, and it wouldn’t require the elimination of the bike path, he said.
Haas said that while residents may oppose the plan, pilots support it as a significant safety enhancement. “They’re the ones that are going to die if they do have an accident,” he said. Some in the audience jeered.
Haas said the commission has received 280 pages of emailed comments on the plan as of Nov. 10, and of the 283 questions that were asked, 235 came from a single person. “Ninety-five percent of the questions came from three questioners,” he said. The commission has tried to answer many of those questions on its web page, he added. “All that the airport commission wants to do is to give voice to all the parties that have a stake in this.”
Resident Paula Lofgren asked for more specific information on the properties that are in the new approach areas. She said that it appears that one property on Great Hill is entirely inside the area, including the house, which would presumably have to be removed as an obstruction. Haas said it’s natural that property owners want more information, but a detailed survey has not yet been conducted. “It’s getting ahead of ourselves,” he said.
Margaret Tompsett said that some air navigation easements secure the rights of aircraft to cause noise, vibrations, fumes, dust deposits, fuel particles, “fear, interference with sleep or communication,” and other effects of aircraft operation. Such easements “would be the kiss of death” to a property’s value, she argued.
Engineer Matt Caron of Gale Associates, the airport commission’s consultant for the master plan, said the commission is not requiring anyone to sign such an easement, and the language Tompsett cited is not necessarily what any local easements might specify.
Lakeshore Drive resident James Fulton, who described himself as a litigator who practiced for more than 40 years, warned town officials that the cost of the easements themselves is only a portion of the true expense to taxpayers, since there would be extensive litigation to determine damages to each property. Owners of properties with easements would likely seek property tax abatements, as would their neighbors. For the town, the process would “be like jumping into a bottomless pit,” he said.
Carol Bliss of West Chatham asked whether that expense and disruption is really necessary to produce a small safety improvement for a small number of flights into Chatham. “It seems to me closing the airport in bad weather is an even safer measure,” she said.
Resident Read Moffett read from an FAA circular that encouraged communities to foster citizen participation early in the process of revising an airport master plan to prevent public mistrust of the process later. The guideline specifically says that traditional public hearings are not an effective way to engage the public in ongoing discussions.
“So what are we doing here tonight?” Moffett said.
A pilot who uses the Chatham airport was nearly shouted down when he began to make comments and identified himself as a Brewster resident. Several in the audience said the forum wanted to hear only from Chatham residents.
Chatham resident David Oppenheim, also a pilot, said he believes the new runway approaches would be a safety improvement, but he acknowledged that the easements would have a depressing effect on property values. He urged the airport commission not to take further action on the proposal without having a better understanding of this potential effect.
It’s clear that the neighborhoods around the airport have grown substantially in the last 40 years, Sky Way resident Ron Kahn said. Houses are now within 1,000 feet of any part of the runway, and neighbors want respect from the airport commission. “I think that’s been missing from the process,” he said. The FAA has 21 aircraft registered to Chatham residents, Kahn said. “There are more people on Sky Way than that,” Kahn said.
Commissioner Nancy Patterson said she’s lived on White Pond near the airport for 22 years, and “I have absolutely no problems with the airport. That’s why I’m on the commission,” she said.
When Davis spoke, she addressed airport commission Chairman Peter Donovan directly. She heard many residents raise concerns about the master plan.
“I’ve also heard defense of the document. That wasn’t the goal of this meeting,” she said. “The idea here tonight was to answer cursory questions and listen.” Davis said the commission is losing an opportunity to truly consider the concerns raised by residents. It is true that the plan would have to pass many hurdles to become implemented, “but when something is documented into a report, it drives policy,” Davis said.
If that policy is fundamentally opposed by citizens, “then there’s something totally wrong with the process,” she said.