CHATHAM — When it comes to shaping the airport master plan, it’s not enough for airport commissioners to accept public comment before forging ahead with their vision; they need to seriously consider public concerns.
That was the message from the board of selectmen this week, which said the process for vetting the plan has been flawed from the outset.
“I think you guys think you’re inclusive, but it doesn’t come across that way,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said.
Commission Chairman Peter Donovan said his group heard a revised version of the controversial runway approach plan which would require fewer easements and tree removals from private parcels. He said the commission has also decided to revisit the chapters of the master plan it had already approved, with the goal of allowing new public input.
Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said the board has had a large amount of correspondence from the public about the airport plan, with many citizens asking why the board doesn’t become more directly involved. While selectmen have the authority to appoint airport commissioners, the commission has its own statutory authority, she noted. The board is following the discussion, and wants the commission to know “that the process needs to be inclusionary.”
The Nov. 12 public meeting held by the commission “didn’t quite go as planned. That was unfortunate,” Davis said. “But I think we learned a lot from it.” That session included a lengthy presentation of the runway approach plan, followed by a series of largely unmoderated public comments with some heated exchanges. A second public meeting held on Nov. 25 was more productive and more civil.
“This update process, in my opinion, has created a very toxic environment with citizens on both sides,” Cocolis said. The debate has fostered mistrust, fear and hyperbole, and “I suspect the mistrust really goes back to skydiving,” he said. The master plan needs to be updated, and safety and technological improvements must be considered. “If you didn’t do that, you wouldn’t be doing your job,” he told Donovan. But the master plan also needs to consider “the historic nature of a small regional airport,” and should ponder measures like flight restrictions to ease concerns about increasing the airport’s capacity.
Cocolis also urged the commission to work more closely with other town committees like the planning board when considering proposals that could have impacts on the larger community.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said the airport is “an enormous asset” for the town but the public process is flawed “when you get fairly sane citizens not listening to each other and talking past each other.” Dykens agreed with Davis that the commission should consider forming a working group to focus on the plan in a way that also considers the interests of non-aviators.
“There’s still time to regroup here,” he said.
Selectmen typically intervene in the business of their appointed boards and committees when there is a problem, Selectman Dean Nicastro said. But on several occasions, groups like the historical commission, planning board or historic business district commission bring major initiatives to the board of selectmen early in the process to gauge support. Had that happened in this case, some of the conflict might have been avoided, he said.
Davis thanked Donovan for his 10 years of service on the commission.
“I hope you take what we’ve said and listen to us, and take it back to your commission and share it with them,” she said.
Donovan said he would do so, and also offered to provide selectmen with more frequent updates on the commission’s work. While the commission is not meeting this month, it will convene again in January to present answers to more questions submitted by the public, he said.