Struggles Continue Over Chatham Airport Master Plan

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

Environmental Study, Advisory Committee Draw Controversy

CHATHAM – It's been seven months since the airport commission last met, and the controversy surrounding its proposed master plan update hasn't diminished one bit.

At a sometimes contentious three-hour meeting last week, the commission fielded criticism from the public, and within its own ranks, on various elements of the plan, which has yet to be finalized.

The commission also rejected four Open Meeting Law violation charges submitted over the past several months and approved a $3.7 million five-year capital improvement plan.

Designed to guide management of the George Ryder Road airport over the next 20 years, the update is the first since the last master plan was completed in 2003. Its most controversial element has been a proposal to eliminate the current circling instrumental approach during poor weather in favor of a GPS-based approach, which would require air easements within the glidepath to the runway and the potential removal of trees and other vegetation. Airport proponents say the change would improve safety and reduce noise, while opponents counter that it would do the opposite.

Opponents also say that the master plan update would expand the airport and allow its use by more and larger aircraft. However, the 3,001-foot length of the runway is the limiting factor in the type of aircraft that can land in Chatham, and that is not changing, according to the draft plan.

It was two other aspects of the plan – actually one plan element and a recommendation that the commission previously rejected – that sparked spirited discussion at the Oct. 28 virtual meeting.

An environmental assessment and vegetative management plan will look at the impact of the recommendations in the plan, including the change in the approach and construction of new terminal, hangar and jet fuel facilities, according to Matt Caron of Gale Associates, the commission's consultant on the master plan update. It is scheduled to be done in the next six weeks, after which a report will be brought to the commission, he said.

“This is one document that will help everyone in the public understand the exact parameters with regard to approaches and other items on the property that are listed as possible projects” in the plan, said Huntley Harrison, who was elected the commission's new chairman at the meeting. “As we move on, a lot of these things will be clear.” The plan, he added, is a “dynamic document that could change from year to year.”

The town received a Federal Aviation Administration grant covering the $342,000 cost of the environmental assessment; initially, Chatham was to pay a local share, but federal CARES Act funding is being used to cover that amount.

The timing of the acceptance of the grant by Town Manager Jill Goldsmith was the topic one of the four Open Meeting Law complaints. Resident James Fulton questioned Goldsmith's authority to sign the grant and whether the board of selectmen and airport commission had approved it. Selectmen last month rejected Fulton's Open Meeting Law complaint, as did the airport commission last week, noting that he did not site a specific meeting during which a violation occurred. The commission's vote was 5-1, with new member Susan Wilcox voting against rejecting the complaint.

Wilcox also pressed the commission on establishing a citizens advisory committee for the master plan update, something that the FAA recommends. In March the board of selectmen strongly urged the commission to form an advisory committee, an idea the commission rejected in January in favor of small group discussion sessions. At its March 10 meeting, however – the last time it met prior to the pandemic – the commission voted 3-2 to accept implementing a citizens advisory committee and asked the chairman and vice chairman to develop a proposal to be discussed at a subsequent meeting, according to the minutes.

Wilcox, a critic of the plan who was named to the commission by selectmen this summer, said she wants the commission to take action consistent with the March 10 vote, and asked that the item be placed on the agenda of the commission's next meeting Dec. 9.

“This is way out of whack,” she said. “You guys are trying to push this thing through without having the board of selectmen input and demand that there be a citizens advisory committee involved in this process.”

She said she planned to contact Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis and liaison Peter Cocolis to confirm that the board had endorsed the citizens advisory committee. During her interview by selectmen to be a member of the commission, she added, she was told that an advisory committee had been approved. “You know you're supposed to have that,” she told her fellow commissioners last week.

A citizens advisory committee is a recommendation, Harrison said, and the airport commission is an independent body under state law. Selectmen can appoint or remove commission members, “but that's it,” he said.

Not including the advisory committee on last week's agenda was an oversight, Harrison said after the meeting. It will be on a future agenda, he said. “We will address it,” he said.

Wilcox also said that several sections of the master plan update had already been finalized without adequate public input. However, Caron explained that while several chapters had been submitted to the FAA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and been approved, two chapters and the final plan have not yet been submitted. He added that the agencies' roles are to accept the plan, not approve it.

The commission wants to make sure residents understand the plan and will be making an effort at better communications. “We're going to work very hard getting information out to the community,” he said, so that the process is “as transparent as possible moving forward.”

“I want to make sure people understand we do have the community's interest at heart,” he said. “At the same time, though, we have to adhere to FAA [and] Massachusetts Department of Transportation guidelines and the grant assurances that are given to us by the FAA.”

At the meeting, the commission also approved the master plan update's five-year capital improvement plan, which lists projects through 2025. Each year, Caron said, the airport receives $150,000 in FAA discretionary funding which can be applied to projects annually or held for later expenditure. Projects, which total $3.7 million over five years, can also be shifted within the plan, he said, depending on airport priorities and funding availability. The FAA covers 90 percent of the cost, with the town and state contributing 5 percent each.

Capital improvement listed on the plan are, for 2020, the environmental assessment for the master plan update at $347,000; in 2022, avigation easement acquisitions, at $1,055,000 or $895,000 – depending on the option chosen – with the town's share at $52,750 or $44,750; in 2023, permitting and removal of runway obstructions (tree clearing) at $500,000, with the town's share at $25,000; 2024, jet fuel facility, $805,000, with the town's share at $40,250; and 2025, construction of new hangers at $150,000, with the town's share $7,500.

Two Open Meeting Law complaints filed by David Bixby alleging that agenda items lacked specificity and that business was conducted outside a posted meeting were also rejected by the commission, as was a second complaint filed by Fulton alleging that business had been done outside of a posted meeting. The action Fulton sited was approved at a January commission meeting, Harrison said.