Who Controls Chatham Airport? There Isn't A Simple Answer

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Who has the ultimate authority over Chatham Municipal Airport? The airport commission? The board of selectmen? The Federal Aviation Administration?

All three, to one degree or another.

For three hours Tuesday evening, officials hashed out the various levels of airport oversight, delving into state statutes, obscure town bylaws and term definitions. They didn't quite get down to the level of defining what the meaning of “is” is, but it was close.

The bottom line: The airport commission has broad authority for the maintenance and operation of the airport under federal law. The board of selectmen's power over the airport rests with its authority to appoint members of the commission and make financial decisions.

“The [town] charter does not, in my view, authorize the board of selectmen in their role as the chief operating officers of the town to supersede or override the statutory powers and duties that are vested in the airport commission,” said Town Counsel Pat Costello.

The joint meeting of selectmen and the airport commission came as the latter continues to struggle with public opposition to an updating of the airport's 20-year master plan. With controversial proposals such as altering the poor weather approach to the airport, the plan has become the latest vector for critics of the facility, who claim that use by more and larger airplanes has disrupted nearby neighborhoods. Criticism of the airport has been raised periodically for decades, but the most recent criticisms, which date from the start of skydiving in 2011, have only grown more strident.

Most recently, the commission and its critics clashed over the group's failure to follow the board of selectmen's recommendation to establish a citizens advisory committee on the master plan update, and the acceptance of a $342,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant for an environmental assessment, required under the plan.

Tuesday's session was called to “get a better understanding of the complexity” of the governance of the airport, said Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis. That complexity dates back almost a century.

Put together out of eight parcels of land by Wilfred Berube in the 1920s, Chatham Airport operated as a private airfield until the 1930s. In 1940, the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission approved commercial use of the facility, and in 1949, town meeting voted $43,750 to match the same amount in state funds and $87,500 in federal money to purchase the airport property and make runway improvements.

That same vote authorized the town to establish an airport commission and accept Chapter 90 of the Massachusetts General Laws, from which the commission's authority is derived. Without that vote, the board of selectmen would be in charge of the airport, said Costello.

“I don't believe that the airport commission would have to yield to the board of selectmen with regard to matters related to the operation of the airport, because it has specific authority under [Chapter 90] to implement operation of the airport” he said.

In the eyes of the FAA, which has legal authority over air space, the town is the “sponsor” of the airport, said Costello, with the commission as the entity with authority over the facility. As sponsor, the town is eligible to receive airport improvement funds and other grants, some of which come with strings, such as the requirement that the airport be open to all general aviation, which under federal law includes skydiving.

Litigation filed by neighboring property owners over skydiving at the airport remains ongoing.

Chapter 90 gives the commission broad authority over the airport operation, including the ability to take property by eminent domain. Resident David Bixby argued that the statute only gives the commission that authority to establish an airport, but Costello said his reading of the law would allow the commission eminent domain authority for easements to mitigate potential navigation hazards. One controversial aspect of the master plan update is a proposal to take air space or “avigation” easements on a number of residential properties to remove potential hazards such as trees in the path of the proposed new poor-weather flight path. A town bylaw, Chapter 100, adopted in 1958, also gives the commission the ability to regulate and restrict structures and natural growth in the vicinity of the airport.

Despite the broad authority the law grants to the airport commission, selectmen can exercise policy control in other ways. It can appoint or remove members at its discretion, and through control of the town's purse strings can support or oppose airport projects. The board, for instance, had declined to put a request for funds for the master plan environmental assessment on the most recent annual town meeting warrant.

“It's prudent the board does not insinuate itself into the management of the airport,” said Selectman Dean Nicastro, but it can offer guidance and recommendations, “which we have.”

“I'm not looking for the board of selectmen to run the airport, no way,” said Selectman Cory Metters. “But we do have a role in the process.”

It's understandable that there's confusion around airport governance, added Selectman Peter Cocolis, the board's liaison to the commission. While it's inappropriate for the board to be directly involved in decisions about the airport, “that doesn't mean we can't influence it.” Davis pointed out that the board made a conscious effort to appoint homeowners to fill recent vacancies on the commission rather than pilots. There are now four homeowners and three pilots on the commission.

Airport Commission Chairman Huntley Harrison said he is hoping to create a “more amicable collaboration not only with the board of selectmen but with the community. We do need to do a better job with communications. That is going to be one of our primary objectives going forward.” At the commission's meeting Wednesday, it was scheduled to discuss the selectmen's recommendation to establish an advisory committee for the master plan, he said.

But the commission has to operate with state and federal guidelines, he added.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens called for officials and residents to get beyond the “hyperbole and innuendo” that's been tossed around about the airport and the commission.

“This airport's been there for 90 years plus, and you know what? It's going to be there for another 90 years, so let's move on and develop a plan that meets most of our needs,” he said.