Airport Commission Rejects Advisory Committee Proposal

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM In a sometimes-testy three-hour meeting last week, the airport commission overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to create a citizens’ advisory committee to help guide the airport master plan update, vowing to continue to move ahead with the planning process.

In a prepared opening statement, commission Chairman Huntley Harrison pointed out that the update of the plan has been a daunting task, but that it has been done in public and focuses chiefly on improving safety both for pilots and for people on the ground. He said the commission had done its due diligence in considering opposition to parts of the plan, adding that the process has been supported by both federal and state aviation regulators. At this stage in the process, with many of the chapters of the plan already having been submitted to the FAA, Harrison said he believes a citizens’ advisory committee is probably unnecessary.

The plan has drawn fire from some residents, particularly those who are concerned about new proposals to change runway approaches to make them safer during times of poor visibility. They require a shallower approach for incoming aircraft, and aviation standards require a lowering of the highest structures in the approach path, including utility poles and trees, some on private property. In future years, if this part of the plan is implemented, it would likely require the taking of easements from certain property owners.

In December 2019, with the planning process mired in opposition by what appeared to be a vocal minority of citizens, the town’s select board suggested that the airport commission create a citizens’ advisory committee, a suggestion the commission rejected. Selectmen reiterated their suggestion in March, just before the commission suspended most work on the master plan because of the pandemic. Late last year, with new members and new leadership, the commission proposed three alternatives for ensuring public participation in the planning process. Option 1 creates a citizens’ advisory committee; Option 2 continues the commission’s chapter-by-chapter review of the plan, answering citizens’ questions at each session; and Option 3 utilizes small informal group meetings to hear input on specific topics in the plan.

“We understand that we will not be able to please everyone, but we need to move forward,” Harrison said. The goal of the plan is to improve safety, ensure the airport’s infrastructure is preserved, limit environmental impacts, make sure the airport is financially sustainable and contributes to the economy, and to make sure it complies with federal and state grant requirements.

“Our approach with all these items is to ensure that they ultimately have a positive effect on town citizens, and preserve – not expand – the airport for the future,” he said.

In December, the airport commission solicited public comment on the three options, and Harrison reported that he received “basically no letters in support of Option 1, nothing, which is the citizens’ advisory committee.” Numerous people supported continuing with the chapter-by-chapter review of the plan, Option 2.

Commissioner Susan Wilcox said some citizens want a different option, creation of a citizens’ advisory board. She asked Harrison to postpone the vote on the three options until her proposal can be vetted. When Harrison agreed to put her request before the commission for a vote, Wilcox became angry.

“You know what the vote’s going to be, and I know what the vote’s going to be,” she said. Wilcox said there has been inadequate opportunity for public participation in the process. “This is inexcusable, what you’re doing,” she said to Harrison.

“The public has been involved for two years,” Harrison countered.

The other commissioners indicated that they favored voting a preferred option immediately.

“I think the issue’s been discussed ad nauseam,” Commissioner Theodore Burke said. Commissioner Michael Cortese agreed, saying he read through the emailed responses to the commission’s request for public comment and saw no support for a citizens’ advisory committee.

“I don’t think we need to postpone it. This has been going ‘round and ‘round for months and months and months,” Commissioner David Owens said of the vote. A citizens’ advisory committee would give further voice to those who would like the airport closed down, he said. “It would just give them another platform to waste the town’s time and money.”

Commissioner Peter Donovan said it’s important to remember the purpose of the airport master plan.

“The primary mission, at the end of the day, is safety,” he said. “It’s time to move on and do the best we can for everybody here, for safety’s sake.”

“What does an advisory committee bring to us that we don’t get now when we’ve had open public meetings and full discussions?” Commissioner Mike Geylin asked. A committee would add another layer and additional time to the review of the plan and would have no decision-making ability on its own. “We’re talking about an advisory committee. It will have no say in any kind of vote,” he said.

Wilcox took issue with that statement, saying that if commissioners feel that a citizens’ advisory committee would have no say in votes, “that’s completely why there should be a citizen advisory board.” Wilcox reminded fellow commissioners that selectmen supported the idea, twice.

“I agree with their assessment and I believe that stands today,” she said.

Commissioners voted 6-1 to oppose creating a citizens’ advisory committee, with Wilcox the lone dissenter.

Harrison said the commission will continue with its review of the master plan and will do a better job communicating with the public about its work.

“I’m hoping that we can move forward with a public relations firm to help us organize and get that information out there,” he said. Once an environmental assessment of the plan is complete, people will have additional opportunities to review and debate the contents of the plan, he said.

“I know that tonight was contentious. I make no apologies for that,” Harrison said. While arguments about the airport plan are healthy, he apologized if his comments offended anyone.

“I just hope that the community will begin to start supporting us,” he said. “I’ve noticed from emails and things like that, that they are.”