South Burlington city councilors are preparing a letter with recommendations for the Burlington International Airport’s new Noise Compatibility Plan.

The document explores programs to mitigate noise caused by air traffic particularly as it affects city homes. At their regular meeting on June 3, councilors reviewed and suggested additions to the letter drafted by Planning and Zoning Director Paul Conner and informed by several city officials and residents. A final letter of recommendations will be sent to the airport at the end of the month.

“Our group based on the council, based on the [Chamberlin District] survey, based on what we’ve been hearing from the neighborhood, really pushes for retaining the housing stock,” Conner told the council.

Conner, as well as other city officials and residents, met with the airport’s Noise Compatibility Technical Advisory Committee to learn about the new Noise Compatibility Plan. Conner then drafted a letter for the council to send to Gene Richards, the airport’s director of aviation.

The Noise Compatibility Plan is a companion to noise exposure maps, Conner said. It outlines noise mitigation procedures and how the airport can seek funds for those efforts from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The plan was most recently updated in 2008.

Work on the new plan began about a year-and-a-half ago. At that time, South Burlington, Winooski and other nearby towns requested the airport wait for the new Noise Exposure Map to be released before creating an updated Noise Compatibility Plan. The new map was made public on May 28.

According to Conner, information provided by the technical advisory committee shows the new plan contains mitigation measures such as taxiway improvements and information on sound insulation, purchase assurance, as well as sales assistance.

“As I outline in the letter, there’s two broad pockets: acquire and remove the homes, and keep the homes,” Conner said. “Within the keep the homes there’s again, two pockets: those which use funds to re-invest in the housing stock and those which are more one-time payments.”

Following a thorough discussion, the council submitted recommendations and revisions to Conner. Councilors aim to have a final version ready to send to the airport by the end of the month.

Draft letter content

The draft letter is comprised of seven main parts including recommendations for: homes approved for acquisition and removal under prior noise compatibility plan awards; properties within the 65-75 decibal noise level (dnl) per the 2019 noise exposure map; properties within the 75+ dnl noise contour per the 2019 noise exposure map; plans to collect and make available flight tracking data; methods for residents to report noise-related issues to the airport; and ongoing meetings of the Airport Sound Committee with tracking – and corrective action as needed – in relation to noise mitigation. The letter also examines airport operation measure recommendations.

Council conversation

The council’s discussion began with chair Helen Riehle expressing gratitude for Conner’s efforts. Councilor Meaghan Emery then dove in with questions and suggestions. She said that following a council-crafted questionnaire, many residents expressed a preference for a sound barrier as part of the airport’s noise mitigation efforts. According to Conner, such efforts would create a “Catch 22” for noise mitigation. He explained that the airport would need to prove the sound barriers would result in noise reduction in order to erect them. Any home that benefited from the walls’ noise reduction would be ineligible for further mitigation efforts.

“It becomes an either or of either a wall or insulation towards the homes,” Conner said. “That was a less than ideal Catch 22.”

But councilor Thomas Chittenden countered, saying that if the walls reduced a home’s eligibility for further noise mitigation, it meant they were indeed benefiting from the structure’s noise dampening effect.

“Sound walls just make sense to me,” he added.

Riehle asked if the airport hadn’t already applied for sound walls, to which Dorn clarified it had applied for a “blast wall.” The blast wall, Conner added, is very specific to lessening debris blown outside the airport fence when the plane turns to take off.

Councilors also discussed the requested 10 percent match for the Chamberlain School noise mitigation proposal. The match was recent news to them. Their hope was that the airport would generate the match so that South Burlington residents would not have to bear the expense.

“This is something that is being thrust on these residents; they should in no way have to pay into mitigating noise coming from an airport,” Emery said. “We have to stick up for these people.”

Conner said he had not heard whether the airport would cover the match or if it wanted the community to contribute.

Councilors later examined other mitigation options. The draft letter lists sound insulation for eligible properties as a primary option. Keeping residents in their own homes is a priority, according to Dorn. The second option calls for purchase assurance. Under this program, the airport would purchase an eligible resident’s home at fair market value, insulate it and return the home to the market for a new homeowner. The third option examines avigation easement. In a fourth bullet point, section “d,” the draft letter states the council’s opposition to a sales assistance program. A sales assistance program would comprise a one-time payment made to a homeowner for a property that could not be sold at fair market value. Under this program, the house is not insulated and future owners are not eligible for such renovations.

The draft letter also included a section of preferred mitigation efforts for homes in the 75+ dnl noise contour which “have a more substantial noise burden than properties in the 65-75 dnl range.”

Chittenden suggested an addition to the letter requesting an estimate for real-time permanent sound monitoring.

“As a city councilor looking at these issues, I’d like real, accurate, true measurements of what the noise is at different parts around the airport,” he said, adding such data could inform operations and considerations around the region.

Councilors also discussed adding a clear statement to the final letter that would note any substantial change in the airport’s noise profile should trigger a new Noise Compatibility Plan.

The council aims to finalize the letter and mail it to the airport by the end of June.

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