Regional Airport Governance Joint Resolution Passes

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Thursday August 17, 2017

A resolution that seeks to change the governance of the Burlington International Airport (BIA) was approved by city council in a 4-1 vote on Thursday, August 10. In a special session councilors reconvened to continue the conversation from a council meeting held Monday, August 7, regarding a document first introduced by Tom Chittenden in February of this year. The joint resolution advances the idea that South Burlington, as well as other communities affected by airport operations, should have a proportional say in the decisions that deeply affect the interests of the broader region.

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; South Burlington City Councilor Pat Nowak fills the fifth seat.

The Regional Airport Governance Joint Resolution aims to redefine how airport decisions that affect South Burlington and the towns of Winooski, Colchester, Williston, Essex and Shelburne are made, and to give those communities the ability to redress their concerns about noise, safety and traffic through shared governance in airport decision making.

With the airport’s 880 acre footprint located entirely within South Burlington, the airport’s host city has experienced a growing list of differences with Burlington that include conflict over property taxes, the loss of affordable homes in the airport neighborhood due to home buyouts and demolition, and funding for noise mitigation and sound studies. Communication is another issue as South Burlington’s requests to Burlington for information, dialogue and meetings have gone unanswered, and the City of Winooski has not had a response to its November 2016 request for a seat on the commission.

The concept of a regional governance model for the airport is not a new one, and the framework of the resolution picks up on a 12 member Airport Strategic Planning Committee Recommendation 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 the resolution calls into question whether or not any other action steps have been pursued or accomplished.

In an effort to find common ground on which they could all agree, the council worked through a number of edits of the original six-page document. Chittenden, Tim Barritt, and Helen Riehle were in favor of the resolution. Straw polls and direct dialogue helped identify the areas of disagreement for Meaghan Emery and Nowak, who at the beginning of the meeting said they couldn’t support the resolution. Councilors explored ownership/governance options including state ownership, joint municipal ownership, and the formation of a municipal union district to provide a more equitable governing model and delved into issues of taxation and finances. Changes to the City Charter and legislative action were also discussed at length.

With Emery’s concerns about taxation, local control and wording to include neighboring towns satisfied, wordsmithing continued to address the issues that stood in the way of Nowak’s approval. These concerns included the whereas items sounding too negative and critical of the airport. She also noted that the idea that Burlington would acquiesce to any change, including a plan that didn’t affect ownership or finances but provided more input at the decision making level, was presumptuous. Nowak held firm until the whereas items were reduced to six, and the refined version of the resolution seemed to gather unanimous support. After those changes were made to the document, Nowak demanded assurance that none of the critical language from the original resolution would be shared with other municipalities either verbally or in writing, and the other councilors agreed not to add an addendum to the resolution that would be sent to other communities. However, Riehle noted that as background, the items that led to the action might possibly be discussed at some point. Nowak withdrew her approval and in the end, voted against the final resolution.

The resolution 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.

The resolution, which was passed in its original form by Winooski’s City Council last month, will be circulated to nearby communities to elicit support from their city councils and select boards. In the meantime, Chittenden sees this as an opportunity to start the conversation and begin to explore options for what he sees as the most pressing issue in South Burlington and the region.