Alternative Airport Governance Study

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Thursday March 09, 2017

In recent months, the South Burlington City Council has been grappling with issues surrounding aircraft generated noise, home buyouts, and funding for noise mitigation. Some forward momentum has been achieved via a resolution presented by Meaghan Emery and passed in late January. The resolution presses the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to withdraw its grant approval for the current NCP (noise compatibility program) and land acquisition program, and to suspend acquisition of homes under the Part 150 program with the idea of preserving affordable housing in the Chamberlin neighborhood. Larger issues have remained, mainly around how the airport is governed and how South Burlington can ensure they have a voice when major decisions that affect the city and its residents are being made.

To that end, at the first council meeting in February, Tom Chittenden presented a resolution regarding ownership and governance of Burlington International Airport. The resolution touches on a number of issues such as loss of affordable homes in the city and the creation of unnecessary friction between cities and the airport due to lack of communication from the airport to the city. The document ultimately requests that the governor form a study committee to consider the viability of shifting ownership of the airport from the City of Burlington to the State of Vermont. Councilors agreed at the time that the concept brought up a number of questions, not the least of which involved potential financial impacts to the city, and therefore warranted a deeper discussion.
Chittenden re-introduced the resolution for discussion at the February 21 meeting. After months of research and consultations with numerous city and regional sources including the governor’s office, Chittenden created what he called an “apolitical” resolution, which he emphasized was not designed to be an action item, as it was a draft. Outlined in the resolution is Chittenden’s theory that if governance was disentangled from Burlington, perhaps more objective decisions could be made via a regional entity made up of representatives from neighboring communities.

After Chittenden provided an overview, Pat Nowak, South Burlington’s representative to the airport commission, said she wasn’t opposed to having a study done, but wondered how South Burlington could potentially be impacted in terms of revenue. Earlier in the meeting, Nowak had reported that airport ratings had recently been raised by Moody’s (credit rating agency) and that recent enplanements were up three percent. “The airport isn’t in as bad a shape as people think it is,” Nowak added.

However, City Manager Kevin Dorn interjected on the matter, with Chair Helen Riehle’s permission. Dorn rarely expresses his thoughts on the issues council discusses, allowing them to do their work and provide direction to him and his staff, but on this item, he felt particularly compelled. He rhetorically asked, “Do we want a seat at the table or to watch from the sidelines?” Dorn continued, citing figures regarding enplanements being down 150,000 from 2008-2015 which equates to a decline of 18 percent, while national trends show the exact opposite. Dorn emphasized the importance of the airport to Vermont’s tourism industry and its function as a key economic driver for the state as a whole. Given that New York Governor Cuomo just invested $23 million in the Plattsburgh airport with talks of a major carrier coming on board, the potential loss of business is a very real concern.

Dorn said, “It’s time to study the issue...we have reached a point where we need to examine governance. There are communities that want a seat at the table.”

Councilor Emery had questions as well and wondered what different funding opportunities from the FAA exist based upon whether an airport is owned municipally or regionally. Beyond governance, the location of the airport was also at the forefront of her mind. She pointed out that the airport is land locked and in a residential zone and suggested that the federal government could have put money torward building a new terminal that would have expanded naturally rather than buying homes.

Helen Riehle concurred that a study would be worth exploring noting that in recent months, the city’s and residents’ concerns have gained traction because of council’s keen focus on the issues.

With more questions than answers, no formal motion was made, but the council directed Dorn to explore the possibilities related to such a study, including conversing with neighboring communities to see if there is interest in going down this road. Dorn concluded, “this is not something that can be done in isolation.”

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent