Counsel: Airport Commission, Not Select Board, Manages CQX

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Airport

Chatham Municipal Airport.  FILE PHOTO

FAA: No Significant Impacts From Airport Plan

CHATHAM — The town’s attorney repeated his assertion last week that managing the Chatham Municipal Airport is the job of the airport commission, not the select board. But last week’s lengthy meeting did nothing to lessen the longstanding rift between airport critics and supporters.

In separate news, the Federal Aviation Administration last week found that the removal of trees from runway approach areas will have no significant impact to the environment, nor will construction of proposed hangars.

FAA Environmental Program Manager Richard Doucette issued a finding that the planned tree-clearing project and hangar constructions would have no significant environmental impacts. In his four-page ruling, Doucette wrote that 24 residents provided extensive comments on the plan’s environmental assessment, but many were airings of other grievances about the airport. “We understand that some may not have achieved their desired outcome in the master plan. But the appropriate process was followed and the master planning decisions will not be relitigated in the [environmental assessment],” he wrote.

Doucette said noise was a frequently raised issue, but the levels of noise in Chatham are far less than in other airports in more congested areas. “Even doubling or tripling the number of flights here would not cause the noise levels to reach the federal threshold of noise that is ‘incompatible with residential land use.’” he wrote. Further, the tree clearing and hangar construction would pose no threat to the public water supply, Doucette said.

In his finding, Doucette stressed that there should be no delay in effort to clear obstructions from the runway approaches.

“The removal of trees is required NOW,” he wrote. “Early in the process, some understood the tree clearing was required only for a new/improved approach procedure. This understanding is incorrect. The existing airspace is currently obstructed and must be cleared,” Doucette wrote.

The briefing from town counsel Patrick Costello came in last Tuesday’s joint meeting of the select board and the airport commission. A number of critics have accused the select board of shying away from difficult decisions related to the airport, but Costello said the appointed airport commission has well-established statutory authorities.

“In essence, the airport commission has care, custody and control over the airport. It runs the airport on the daily basis. It is, in my opinion, the chief executive authority with respect to airport operations,” he said. While the select board has the power to appoint commissioners and controls the warrant of town meetings where local funds are appropriated for airport projects, it does not set policies related to the use of the facility, Costello said.

Through the FAA, the federal government tightly regulates the use of air space, issuing rules that airports must follow, “and we have no option but to comply with them,” Costello said. That includes requirements pertaining to the safety of runway approaches, the removal of hazards to aircraft, and the regulation of noise. “Any noise generated by aircraft is strictly within the realm of federal regulation,” he said. Aside from acquiring land to modify the layout of an airport, the town has little recourse when it comes to noise complaints. “Beyond that, the pickings are slim in terms of legal options,” Costello said.

Select board Chairman Peter Cocolis said neither his board nor the airport commission “can say, ‘No more turboprops can fly in here, no more charters can fly in here.’ We can’t do that unless we go to the FAA and make a case. I think we’d have a tough time there.” Cocolis said he believes there may be some creative ways to reduce noise impacts in some neighborhoods around the airport, which he agrees can be substantial.

Airport Commission Chairman Huntley Harrison said the airport already has a “Fly Friendly” program designed to encourage pilots to adopt practices that reduce noise, but agreed that it is difficult to send that message to transient pilots who only visit Chatham briefly.

The recently updated airport master plan calls for new runway approaches designed to be safer during times of low visibility, and those approaches underscore the need for the limited removal of trees and other structures that encroach on the approach pathways. Harrison said he would prefer working with private property owners in the area to voluntarily remove the obstructions, “perhaps with some financial help with the airport,” rather than having the town take easements requiring the removal. “Eminent domain is the last thing we want to do,” he said.

Resident James Fulton said he believes the key to reducing noise around the airport is to adopt a town safety bylaw that bans certain aircraft from using the airport, on the basis that the facility’s runway protection zones are inadequate. “The other day up in Provincetown we had an airplane that overshot the runway by a thousand feet. If that guy had been landing in Chatham and overshot a thousand feet, he either would have plowed directly through Ocean State Job Lot, which is only 500 feet from the end of the runway, or he would’ve crashed into the fuel pumps at Meservey’s Shell station, if he’d just pulled a little bit to the right,” Fulton said. The inadequacy of the runway safety zones are a legitimate safety problem in town, and “with all due respect, it’s a problem that the airport commission has ignored,” he said.

The airport also threatens to curtail development of the West Chatham village center, resident Rick Leavitt argued. Leavitt said the airport plan facilitates the use of large commercial planes in Chatham, and “it is in Chatham’s interest to end airport ‘mission creep.’”

Airport commissioner Mike Geylin said federal rules, not commission members, determine which types of planes can use an airport. “In the case of Chatham, if it can handle a 3,001-foot runway and weighs less than 30,000 pounds, it’s eligible to use the airport” if it meets occupancy limits, he said.

Resident Gloria Freeman acknowledged that the airport commission has broad authority, according to town counsel. “I am suggesting consideration be given to – as was done with the water and sewer commission – giving yourselves the role of airport commissioners,” she told the select board. Doing so would provide greater accountability for airport decisions, Freeman noted. Even if the current board doesn’t want the job, “with an advisory board and a consultant, you can do it. You should,” she said.

Harrison thanked the select board for hosting the meeting, but said the commission needs an opportunity to rebut untrue information that continues to come from airport critics who are often “grandstanding” with their comments. The airport commission’s website provides factual answers to many questions, but “the bottom line is, I think a lot of the people don’t want to hear the answers,” Harrison said. The result has been that the commission and critics have been “going around and around” for years. “I’m getting tired of it,” he said.

It is time for the select board and the airport commission to take a fresh look at the situation, select board member Shareen Davis said. “Are we all aligning ourselves with the core value of what the community wants and needs? And I’m not just talking about the public and the residents, but also pilots as well,” she said.

Board member Dean Nicastro said the select board should follow the advice of its attorney and avoid getting too involved in the operation of the airport, as it did previously over the issue of skydiving.

“I understand the pressure that the previous board of selectmen was under, but I think they may have gotten too far ahead of themselves in trying to address that issue,” he said. “Because there are some people who are never going to be satisfied.”