Houses on Airport Drive scheduled for demolition.

Neighborhood in Limbo

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Thursday May 10, 2012

“We call it ‘Little Detroit,” said Carmen Sargent of 21 Elizabeth Street. Sargent is a resident of the neighborhood just west of Burlington International Airport (BIA). She and seven other neighbors voiced their testimony Tuesday night at the Development Review Board meeting. The key item on the evening’s agenda was an appeal of the Administrative Officer’s decision to approve zoning permits for the demolition of 54 residences in their neighborhood. The appeal was brought by George Maille, a longtime resident of Logwood Street.

Sargent, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, continued that she felt the airport had been poor stewards of the properties they had purchased in the neighborhood. Better communication with property owners could have helped during the land acquisition process. She fears for her safety, given the number of vacant houses and the presence of squatters in the area.

This discomfort was echoed by Rebecca Blow, who has lived in the neighborhood for all but three years of her life. She is unsure of what will happen to her house; she knows that BIA will purchase it, but she doesn’t know when. Her home is surrounded by empty, damaged structures, and, like Sargent, she is fearful when she walks around the neighborhood, not knowing who if anyone is occupying some of the vacated homes.

Others, such as Steve Marriott, a neighborhood resident for 36 years, are concerned about the safety of children in the neighborhood. Marriott fears that his grandchildren may be exposed to hazardous materials in the air due to demolition of houses that were built prior to 1978 laws banning the use of asbestos in the manufacture of building products. He also pointed out that this extended acquisition process has changed the character of the neighborhood, as “vacant homes are less family-friendly” than occupied ones. He spoke in support of George Maille’s testimony, thanking him for bringing the issue to light. Marriott also felt that BIA had not been transparent enough with the public about its process.

Dave Desloriers of Delaware Street spoke of a neighbor’s home that had been purchased by BIA and, rather than being demolished according to schedule, remained standing and occupied. He mentioned other purchased residential structures that had been rented by BIA to students. One of these students was his own son.

Desloriers’ comments about residential occupancy after acquisition by BIA caused concern among DRB members. When it became apparent that someone from BIA was present at the meeting, Chair Mark Behr gave her the option of being sworn in as an interested party and giving testimony. She agreed to do so. Heather Kendrew is the director of Maintenance, Engineering and Environmental Compliance at BIA. As she stated in a follow-up interview, she is not directly involved in the land acquisition program. However, her knowledge helped address questions about the acquisition process. She confirmed that, in some cases, people continued to live in houses that had been purchased by BIA. Kendrew had attended the meeting “just to listen.” Yet, she quickly realized that what she was hearing from airport neighbors made it “clear that we [BIA] weren’t doing a good job at communicating.”

Lorrie Deering of Airport Drive testified that she lived in one of only ten houses still occupied on her street. Two neighboring houses have been unoccupied for five and seven years, respectively. One of these has an uncovered in-ground pool that presents a danger to local children. Deering said she had never been notified about the demolition of abutting houses and felt, in general, that BIA had not kept residents informed about what was going on.

Judy Valenti of Pump Lane echoed this sentiment, saying that BIA does not let homeowners know if they are part of the acquisition program or not. Due to the nearby vacant house, she feels she is “surrounded by the city dump.”

One of the central issues common to all the testimony given was the lack of effective communication of BIA with local residents. Kendrew came away from the meeting committed to addressing communication issues. In a follow-up interview, she told this reporter that BIA has been searching for the best ways to keep the public informed about the land acquisition program. They are in the process of exploring how to use social media better to stay in touch with the public and with neighbors, in particular. She feels that this will go a long way toward answering questions and calming fears. For example, she offered, all the houses slated for demolition have an environmental assessment done prior to any demolition work. An environmental contractor abates any hazardous conditions found as an integral part of the process. Kendrew wants to make this kind of information available on BIA’s website, along with finding other proactive ways of providing timely information to the public so that people will be fully informed.

Frustrations arising from the prolonged acquisition and demolition process have clearly created a stressful situation for residents remaining in the neighborhood. Jeffrey Desloriers, who lives with his family in the only remaining occupied house on Delaware Street, told of returning in 2010 from deployment in Afghanistan with a sense of disappointment in the character of the neighborhood.

Rebecca Blow voiced her awareness of the way the neighborhood presents itself to outsiders by saying, “It’s the first thing visitors see when they leave the airport grounds...I want to be proud of my neighborhood. Right now, I’m ashamed.”

Kendrew is glad she attended the meeting and, with encouragement from the DRB, will actively pursue avenues of relief in the form of improved communication from BIA.

SOURCE: Lois Price, Correspondent