Airport Commission Floats Compromise Approach Plan

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Airport

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — In the wake of vocal opposition to a previous runway approach plan, the airport commission is proposing an alternative that still improves safety but requires fewer private property easements to be taken.

Under the adjusted proposal, easements would likely be required for 18 properties where trees would need to be removed or topped to provide adequate clearance for a new straight-in approach pattern. The previous plan could have resulted in easements being required from 46 properties.

“It seems like a decent compromise,” Commissioner Nancy Patterson said at Monday evening’s meeting. Engineer Matt Caron of Gale Associates, which is preparing the revision to the airport master plan, said the greatest change is on the northern end of the runway, where nine properties are affected.

“We estimate there’s about eight properties and one vacant piece of land out there that would be impacted with tree clearing,” he said. Most of those properties are off Agnes Lane and Old Queen Anne Road, along with a parcel between the northern end of the runway and a cranberry bog. Another nine parcels would be affected on the south end of the runway, including three homes and six commercial buildings, mostly off George Ryder Road near Ocean State Job Lot. The obstructions include trees, utility poles and a chimney, though that chimney may have been removed in a recent renovation of that house, Caron said.

Caron said the preferred approach is to remove trees rather than removing the tops, which may kill the tree, “and then create an issue for the homeowner later on.” But it would also be possible for the airport to secure the services of a certified arborist to make that decision on a tree-by-tree basis.

To reduce the impact on the northern approach, which includes properties on Great Hill, the plan calls for only a minimal removal of trees and obstructions to maintain the existing so-called Part 77 approach standards. If these trees and obstructions are not removed, the usable area of the runway would have to be decreased, Caron said.

“So in terms of the impacts for the Runway 24 end, it looks to me like there’s minimal impacts, since it’s essentially what we have now,” Commissioner Huntley Harrison said.

On the other side of the runway, the plan calls for improvements to allow a non-precision straight-in instrument approach during poor visibility, but without an earlier provision to provide vertical guidance. Vertically guided approaches are considered safer because they allow pilots to use GPS navigation to follow a steady descent from a considerable distance away from the airport, but they require a larger area of the ground to be free from obstructions.

Pilot Lawrence Lepard said the airport has been around since the 1930s, and he bought his home in town because of it. The current approach signal systems are 50 years old and dangerous, he said. Denying the vertically guided approaches is a mistake, Lepard added. “There is no doubt that this is a more dangerous airport without these approaches,” he said.

Resident Paula Lofgren said her house was built in 1976 “and probably never should’ve been built” because of its proximity to the airport, under a town bylaw designed to protect the airport from obstructions on nearby private property.

“The question is, why did you, the airport commission and the town, allow this to so long go unchecked?” she asked. Someone should have communicated the fact that properties were encroaching on the town’s airport approach zones, she said. And while the compromise plan affects fewer properties, “it’s still 16 easements,” she said.

Harrison said there is some consensus on the airport commission.

“I think we’re going to work as hard as we can to minimize intrusion on people’s properties,” he said, to scattered applause. It remains unclear which properties will need to have trees taken down or topped, and it will take a long time for such plans to be finalized. “If I’m on this committee, I’m going to fight for minimization as much as we can to protect people’s property,” Harrison said.

Resident Tom Wilson said he was hoping to learn more detail about the compromise plan, which was described in a single map included in the commissioners’ meeting packet. The lack of detail translates to a lack of transparency, he said.

“There is an astonishing lack of trust in this room,” he said.

Resident Katie Buckley, a recently retired Southwest Airlines captain who grew up in Chatham, said she has seen emails and hand-outs circulated by airport critics. “They are so erroneous, so misleading and so fear-filled, they are dangerous,” she said. New technology is available to improve the safety of landings during low visibility conditions, and “we cannot keep our heads in the sand,” Buckley said.

The airport commission took no action on the compromise proposal.