The arrival of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport this fall will bring some changes, namely, noise. That’s why South Burlington, Winooski and airport owner Burlington are hashing out noise mitigation preferences in a memorandum of understanding. 

According to a 2015 Noise Exposure Map, 976 dwellings within Colchester, Winooski, South Burlington and Burlington were within the 65 + decibels (dB) day-night average noise levels (dnl) contour, qualifying them for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) airport improvement funds. This spring, an updated Noise Exposure Map showed 2,640 homes from the four communities within the 65 + db dnl contour. With so many residents affected by these changes, South Burlington, Burlington and Winooski have set to work on a memorandum of understanding. The draft document formally accounts the communities’ disapproval of further home demolition programs and affirms a commitment to seek FAA funds for sound insulation programs.

In May of 2017, South Burlington began work on a draft memorandum of understanding between itself and the Queen City. That document was meant to explicitly state the two municipalities’ aversion to home demolition as a form of airport noise mitigation. 

In later iterations of the document, and at a June 19, 2017 city council meeting, city attorney Andrew Bolduc emphasized that a memorandum of understanding would not carry the weight of a contract but would document Burlington’s support. 

After a long negotiation period with little communication, Burlington responded to the memorandum with a document of its own. But according to South Burlington city council chair Helen Riehle, that document did not address South Burlington’s requests. 

“They sent back something that we said, ‘this does nothing that we asked for,’” she said, adding that continued conversations have helped further the document. 

This spring, the memorandum gained traction with the election of Winooski’s new mayor, Kristine Lott, and updates to the Noise Exposure Map, Riehle said. 

Lott, Riehle, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger have held frequent meetings to discuss airport happenings and noise mitigation efforts. Last week, they discussed the memorandum and decided to draft an updated version, take it to each of their respective councils or advisories, and hopefully finalize it. The document calls on Burlington to maintain the ratio of funding per impacted person, meet the match for FAA airport improvement program funds and allow Winooski and South Burlington officials to view Burlington’s airport noise compatibility plan before it is finalized. 

“We agreed that this was almost okay,” Riehle said of the draft memorandum, adding that Weinberger had agreed to develop some of its language.  

The memorandum is divided into three parts with commitments for Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski. Under the Burlington section, item “M (stricken-out as item “K”) calls for the city to maintain FAA funding per impacted person. Over the last five years, $20 million was provided in FAA funding for persons impacted by airport noise. The monies total about $4 million per year for 381 persons within the 65 + dnl, the draft memorandum says. To maintain that ratio, the document asks Burlington to advocate for $64 million per year for the 6,125 people now within the 65+ dnl. 

Under the memorandum’s Burlington section, item “L,” the city is to commit to meeting the local match requirement of the FAA funding. In a conversation with Weinberger, Riehle emphasized the impact of a 10 percent match on $64 million per year for residents. 

“That’s a pretty large match for the people who have been affected by the noise to then pay to get it fixed when it wasn’t their noise,” Riehle said. “He [Weinberger] hadn’t thought about that, or certainly put it in that perspective that 10 percent of $64 million for five years is a huge chunk of change.”

The memorandum contained a third major addition, calling for Winooski and South Burlington to have the right to review Burlington’s noise compatibility plan before it is finalized and sent to the FAA. Originally, the two cities asked for veto power, but Riehle said, Burlington did not approve that measure. 

“This is a big compromise,” Riehle told The Other Paper. “This is the work that we’ve been doing back and forth, the three of us, to get us to a better place.”

“This would give us a chance to look at what they actually heard with our recommendations and what they put together in language requesting whatever the program might be for sound mitigation to the FAA,” Riehle told the council. “We would be able to say, ‘no, time out, that’s not what we said,’ or ‘we didn’t agree to that.’”

Riehle also said the memorandum includes notes stating that if airport noise triggered new noise exposure maps with homes impacted by additional noise, those homes that previously received noise mitigation would still be eligible for funds. 

The council discussed several other additions and elements of the memorandum, which Riehle said she would bring back to Weinberger and Lott during their August meeting. 

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