Draft Environmental Assessment Released For Airport Plan

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Airport

According to the airport master plan, the number of aircraft based at the Chatham airport is expected to increase modestly from 40 to 47 in the next 20 years. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Tree Work Recommended For 21 Private Parcels

CHATHAM The town may seek easements to trim or remove trees from 21 private parcels around the airport as part of a bid to improve the safety of runway approaches. The finding was included in a draft of the environmental assessment of the airport’s master plan update, recently released by the town.

Available on the town’s website, the draft assessment is open for public comment through July 6, and public comment will also be taken at the June 9 airport commission meeting.

“Questions posed will not be answered at this session but will be part of the record to be considered as part of the FAA Review Process,” commission Chairman Huntley Harrison said.

While the environmental assessment also evaluates the impact of the possible construction of two new hangar buildings, it is its evaluation of the proposed tree removal on private property that has sparked the most interest.

“This is not a clear-cut activity,” said Matt Caron of Gale Associates, the airport’s consulting firm. Caron told the commission at its May 12 meeting that the trees that have been identified as intruding into the approach areas on either end of the runway are either individual trees or very small groupings.

Like other elements of the airport’s master plan, the tree clearing remains only a proposal at this phase, and would be subject to further regulatory review. But it represents the commission’s preferred strategy for improving safety for approaching aircraft and for people on the ground, while keeping the airport in compliance with rules that provide sizable federal and state grants.

The commission’s preferred approach calls for removing or trimming vegetation from airport property, as well as 21 private parcels. Those parcels – eight on the southwest end of the runway and 13 on the northeast end – have trees that were found to penetrate the runway’s approach areas.

The town has had a bylaw on the books since the 1950s that regulates the height of structures and trees around the airport, but the statute has not been enforced.

“If vegetation obstruction removal had occurred in accordance with the airport approach protection bylaw, then the number of required easements would be reduced from eight to six on the Runway 06 end, and from 13 to five on the Runway 24 end,” the draft environmental assessment reads.

“If we had been running with the town bylaw and taking care of the trees in the first place, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” commissioner Michael Cortese said. “We’re kind of playing catch-up here.”

Removing the offending trees on 21 parcels eliminates a known safety risk, Caron said. It also allows planes to use a more accurate, direct approach to the runways, “thereby flying over fewer homes than aircraft do today,” he said.

As part of the environmental assessment, engineers asked the FAA whether any changes would need to be made to the stretch of the Old Colony Rail Trail that passes just southwest of the runway. The FAA had no objection to the bike path, “which is great news,” Caron said.

Commissioner Susan Wilcox chided the assessment for giving little emphasis to the do-nothing alternative for removing vegetation.

“There are many people, most especially residents whose properties [surround] the airport, who believe this is the best option,” Wilcox said.

Commissioner Mike Geylin said he knows some opponents of the airport would prefer taking no action to remove trees, in the belief that encroaching trees would mean that only smaller planes would be able to use the runway. That would not be the result, he said.

If the airport adopted the no-action alternative, “unfortunately we’re going to be in violation of our grant assurances, [and] we’re going to be reducing safety,” Harrison said.

Wilcox rejected the idea that the trees impede safety.

“Well, by God, the airport has – and this is the contention of a lot of the people that live around here, myself included – the airport’s been in existence for over 50 years,” she said. Wilcox said she believes some removal of vegetation is warranted, but that the current proposal is “more excessive than it needs to be.”

The draft environmental assessment found that the proposed tree clearing and hangar construction, two of the projects scheduled to happen early in the 20-year master plan update, had no significant impacts on air quality, wildlife, historical or archaeological resources, noise, visual effects or water resources.