Limits On Airport Use Defeated At Town Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham Airport

Tom Wilson defends a town meeting article that sought to limit the type of planes that can use Chatham Airport. The measure was defeated. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Two bylaws that tried to limit use of Chatham Municipal Airport went down to defeat at Saturday's annual town meeting.

Airport supporters rallied to oppose the articles, which were submitted by petition. Both measures lost by a substantial margin, one on a voice vote and the other by a two-to-one margin in a hand count.

The airport has been the subject of controversy since skydiving began there more than a decade ago. Saturday was the first time an article related to operations at the George Ryder Road facility went before town meeting.

Proponents of the two proposed bylaws – which sought to limit the type of aircraft that could use the airport and reduce the length of the runway available for landings – said they would make the airport safer for pilots and people on the ground. Opponents disputed that, saying that shortening the landing area would be more dangerous and asserting that the size of airplanes have nothing to do with safety.

Town counsel and the airport commission's aviation attorney said the town did not have the authority to regulate the type of planes that use the airport or the usable length of the runway. That authorities lies solely with the Federal Aviation Administration, they said. Both measures also pose a “significant legal liability for the town” because they stipulated that the town defend them against any challenge, Town Counsel Patrick Costello said at Saturday's session.

Thomas Geagan, sponsor of article 56, which sought to displace the runway by 800 feet, reducing the length to 2,001 feet for landings, said by doing so runway protection zones at both ends of the landing strip could be pulled back onto airport property. Runway protection zones extend about 1,000 feet from the ends of the runway and are designed to provide an open area in case an aircraft crashes beyond the runway. The FAA recommends that the areas be clear of buildings and activities and be on airport property when possible, but in Chatham the Agnes Road neighborhood, with more than a dozen homes, and a portion of the West Chatham village center and Route 28 are in the RPZs.

“We as a community must be assured that everything possible and plausible should be done to keep us safe,” Geagan said.

Airport Commission Chair Huntley Harrison said since the entire 3,001-foot length of the runway would remain available for takeoffs, the RPZs would not change. Reducing the amount of available runway would not make the airport safer, he said.

“Less runway means less safety,” Harrison said.

Several pilots agreed. David Oppenheim said Chatham has a reputation as a safe airport, but displacing 800 feet of runway for landings will lessen safety. Because of crosswinds and other factors here, pilots need the entire distance of the runway to adjust and react to conditions when landing, he said.

“Any attempt to shorten this thing is going to jeopardize pilots, jeopardize neighbors,” he said.

Resident Kyle Takakjian said he ran a charter flight business out of Chatham in the early 2000s. Chatham's weather makes flying here challenging, he said.

“When you shorten the runway, you diminish options for pilots,” he said.

Harrison added that the town accepted state and federal grants for the airport over the years and the proposals would violate the terms of those agreements. The FAA and state could seek repayment of those funds, he said, but airport opponents said they knew of no cases where that had been done.

Tom Wilson, a former airport commission member, said approving the bylaw would result in review by the FAA, which has never been asked to rule on Chatham's RPZs.

“Let the experts at the FAA decide this question,” he said.

Voters, however, rejected the proponents' arguments and defeated the article on a voice vote.

Petition James Fulton said article 57 would prohibit aircraft with wingspans of more than 49 feet from using the airport. The measure is aimed at so-called turboprop planes, which he said performed more than 500 operations (landings and takeoffs) at the airport last year, “operations most of us never dreamed of when we bought our homes,” he said. Turboprop planes carry 400 gallons of fuel, and if one crashes it would be “catastrophic,” he said. The airport is specifically designed for smaller planes, he added, and the turboprop aircraft make the airport more commercial and impact the character of the town.

Planes as large as DC-3s have landed safely at Chatham Airport in the past, said Rene Haas, and a commercial aircraft has never had an accident here. He warned that the article is a “blank check” that would pit the town against the state and federal governments, with no limit on how much the town would spend to defend it. He added that many of the smaller aircraft they routinely use the airport are louder than some turboprop planes.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said.

Voters sided with airport supporters and turned down the article 135 in favor to 287 opposed.

“This vote should be the final vote on the airport,” said resident Robert Wirtshafter. “Those who can't live with it, there's a simple solution: sell your house.”