Thursday September 21, 2017
In late August, the city council passed a resolution (4:1, with Pat Nowak voting against) calling for the development of a commission to study the governance, ownership and infrastructure of Burlington International Airport (BIA), with the possibility of transitioning from a municipally owned structure to a regionally managed entity. The resolution, researched, drafted, and presented by Councilor Tom Chittenden has seen numerous iterations since its initial introduction in July. At the September 18 meeting, the council passed 3:1, with Nowak in opposition, an addendum to that resolution which outlines further support for the necessity of such a commission at this time.
Although it is considered a critical economic asset for the region and the state, the City of Burlington owns the airport and has sole control of its operations. The current governance model includes a director of aviation who operates as the airport’s general manager and is appointed by the Mayor of Burlington. A five member Airport Commission serves only in an advisory capacity, with four members appointed by Burlington’s Mayor and city council with the fifth seat being held by South Burlington City Councilor Pat Nowak.
The addendum presents 52 points as evidence to support the creation of a commission to study regionalization. The document points out that the airport’s 880 acre footprint is located entirely within South Burlington, yet the city does not have a voice in its governance. It cites Burlington’s use of South Burlington’s infrastructure such as its wastewater treatment plant and roads as well as airport noise and its adverse impacts on maintaining affordable housing in the area.
The addendum also makes a point of mentioning that regionalization is not a new concept and was recommended by an Airport Strategic Planning Committee report made to Burlington in 2013. An ‘Action Step’ was recommended at that time to “concurrently work with the state and other potential regional partners to create a regional authority model to be implemented…” That recommendation was tabled and there isn’t any evidence to indicate action was taken on the other action steps either.
Furthermore, in 1985, a Burlington Airport Study Group drafted a 28 page document containing research and recommendations to the City of Burlington regarding airport governance. The study group examined proposed legislation to transfer ownership and operation of the airport from the City of Burlington to a regional authority. The group studied the financial viability of such an authority, the management and operations of the airport, and changes that should be made around government policies in order to respond to the changing needs and circumstances of the region.
The joint resolution passed in August formally requests the Burlington City Council to consider forming a commission that reviews the structure of the BIA to include representation from Burlington as well as other affected communities in the region. It goes on to request that the matters considered by the commission would include regional infrastructure, governance and ownership. Finally, it states that if neither of the first actions are initiated in a reasonable period of time, that the Governor of the State of Vermont appoint a committee made up of representatives from affected communities in the region and from the state to develop a plan.
Chittenden and City Manager Kevin Dorn presented the resolution to neighboring communities in the hope that getting them on board will give the resolution the traction it needs to inspire meaningful action by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. The Winooski City Council unanimously passed the first version of the resolution and although other communities have yet to approve the resolution, they have been open to the conversation. At the Colchester Selectboard meeting last month, after hearing from Dorn and Chittenden, the board indicated it would hold a “brief” discussion on the matter during a work session scheduled for September, but were uncertain if the resolution had much relevance to them directly.
At the Williston Selectboard meeting, members also expressed reticence due to the unknowns and potential unintended consequences. Both selectboards received a letter from Weinberger in advance of the meetings urging caution when considering regionalization.
“No clear case has been made, or I suspect can be made, that regionalization will strengthen our airport,” Weinberger wrote, “There is a real risk that regionalization done wrong, or for parochial reasons, could actually weaken one of the region’s most successful economic drivers.”
Dorn refuted the claims Weinberger made in his letter, point for point, in a letter of his own. He noted that Director of Aviation Gene Richards is beholden only to the Mayor, the economic infrastructure is managed by one person, and that the airport has seen a dramatic decline in enplanements. While municipally owned airports are common, as Weinberger states in his letter, an airport owned by one municipality and located in another is quite unique. Dorn concluded his letter by noting that a number of items requested by South Burlington have been either ignored or denied by Burlington and/or the airport. These include South Burlington’s request to stop home demolitions, a request for updated noise studies from the airport and funding to conduct their own studies, and a request by Council Chair Helen Riehle to have a face to face meeting with Weinberger to discuss regional governance.
At the September 18 meeting, Nowak, again, outlined her trepidation on some of the bullet points, which resulted in one, regarding the airport’s “strong financial interest in maintaining high noise levels at the airport,” being struck. Nowak stressed that while she would not be voting in favor of the addendum that evening, she represented the council, as a whole to the airport commission. Chittenden also said that he would welcome Aviation Director Gene Richards’ specific criticism on the addendum since he has stated that some items in the resolution are not based in truth. Riehle pointed out that if this item was presented to the airport for critique, the council may not hear back for a long time, given the record of lack of response to their other resolutions and MOU. There was a brief discussion about whether the council should go through Nowak’s concerns, point by point, to see if she could be convinced to sign onto the addendum, but ultimately, in the interest of moving forward in a timely fashion, Barritt made the motion to approve the addendum, Chittenden seconded, and the item passed 3:1. Nowak voted against; Councilor Meaghan Emery was absent. The City of Winooski passed both the initial and revised governance resolutions while Colchester, Williston, and Shelburne have yet to take action.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent