Council Considers Resolution for Regional Airport Governance

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Thursday July 20, 2017

It’s complicated. Although it is considered a critical economic asset to the entire state, the Burlington International Airport, which is located entirely in South Burlington, is owned and governed solely by the City of Burlington. This governance model has created friction over decisions made by Burlington, which result in adverse effects experienced by South Burlington. Communication has been strained regarding funding and planning for noise mitigation, buyout and demolition of 200 of the city’s affordable homes in the Chamberlin neighborhood, and differences of opinion and subsequent lawsuits about property taxes and assessed values. Over the past year, South Burlington has sent letters and most recently, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) asking for the cessation of the home buyout program, to the airport, the Mayor of Burlington, and the FAA, but these efforts have failed to get a response or gain significant traction. A joint resolution presented by Councilor Tom Chittenden at the July 17 council meeting proposes a path forward that could address the conflict these issues have created — adoption of a regional governance model for the airport.

The three page resolution calls for a transition from a City of Burlington owned and run airport to a regional governance structure where the state owns the airport and the neighboring communities of Winooski, Williston, Colchester, Essex and Shelburne have a voice in the decision making.

Chittenden’s resolution contains several categories of “whereas” items that spell out the main issues the council and neighboring communities have had over the years, including concerns about noise, safety, traffic, and the airport’s long term economic viability as well as the lack of voice in influencing airport decisions. The resolution concludes with three “be it resolved,” items. One states that it is in the best interest of all involved for ownership of the airport to be transferred to the state or a regional governing body. The second stipulates that the Mayor of Burlington build a committee with representatives from all stakeholders, to prepare and implement a plan for transition of ownership of the airport and recommend a governance structure. Finally, the third point is designed to address the possibility that neither one is acted upon in a “reasonable amount of time.” If this occurred, the resolution requests that the Governor appoint a committee of representatives from the affected communities to develop a plan to transition ownership to the state.
The resolution notes that current performance indicators call into question the airport’s viability as an ongoing enterprise in the face of competitive pressure from a growing Plattsburgh International Airport. Although enplanements nationally are up, Burlington’s fell from 759,021 in 2008 to 594,034 in 2015. The resolution also touches on numerous facets of governance. Currently, the director of aviation serves as the general manager and is accountable to the Mayor of Burlington. The airport commission serves in an advisory role with 4 of the 5 members appointed by the Mayor of Burlington and the Burlington City Council, with one representative from South Burlington. Winooski’s requests to join the commission have not been responded to by the City of Burlington. A regional model would ensure that all neighboring communities have a seat at the table for decision making.

Regional governance is not a new concept and was even proposed by the airport itself in a June 2013 presentation to the Burlington City Council where they presented action steps for the future of the airport, including “working with the state and other regional partners to create a regional authority model to be implemented.” However, according to the resolution, no evidence of this step or any of the others being implemented has been revealed.
Reactions by fellow councilors and the public varied. South Burlington State Representative Maida Townsend added that the idea of a regionalized airport has been around for a long time and she supports the idea of regional governance, with the caveat that one approach does not necessarily preclude another. She felt that the discussion was worthwhile and that reaching out to fellow communities on the issue should occur.

Emery expressed concern toward moving a regional governance model forward, although she admitted she shared the economic concerns outlined in the resolution. She suggested an idea where all communities impacted by airport operations pooled a set amount of financial resources and used those toward either building a berm or acquiring land closer to the Quebec/Vermont border for building a new airport that could be a viable competitor with the Montreal market. Most importantly, it would not be located in a residential area, thus alleviating the noise concern.

Barritt appreciated the resolution and thought it was yet another tool in the council’s toolbox toward their goal of reducing noise and preserving affordable homes in the Chamberlin neighborhood. However, Barritt noted that the larger problem is one that is extremely complex and lacks data. “There are many unknowns and few tools for measurement,” Barritt said.

Nowak thought gathering a panel of local experts would be prudent. She suggested representation from the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC), the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC), and representatives from the Governor’s office, specifically in the transportation area. Nowak advocated for a more “global approach” prior to moving ahead with such a resolution with the thought that the council would have a stronger position if they had a panel of organizations behind them rather than neighboring communities alone.

Public comment on the resolution was mixed. Chamberlin Neighborhood Airport Planning Committee (CNAPC) member George Maille cautioned the council in giving control of the airport to the Governor or another state entity, he believes local control should remain. Carmine Sargent, CNAPC chair, while appreciative of the discussion, thought the resolution was premature until the city could “show its strength,” possibly by pursuing Nowak’s idea of securing organizational backing. Resident James Leas cited Burlington’s financial records, documenting the millions of dollars Burlington collects in airport fees. He urged the council to consider levying airport fees to use toward noise mitigation applications; Maille countered that this had been suggested in 2009, and warned that passenger facility fees are regulated by the FAA and have a threshold. Kevin Dorn commented that a charter change would be required to collect fees.

No formal motion was made Monday night. While South Burlington’s City Council did not progress to a vote on the resolution, it is interesting to note that also on Monday night, the Winooski City Council was considering Chittenden’s resolution as well, and passed it unanimously.

The South Burlington City Council, as a whole, didn’t feel prepared to make that leap, but they did agree on a few action steps moving forward. Councilors agreed to ask Rep. Maida Townsend to discuss the item with legislative counsel. Helen Riehle laid out a plan to hold a special meeting to refine the resolution and have a broader meeting to gather vested interests from experts and from other communities.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent