Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Burlington International Airport (KBTV), Vermont: South Burlington brings fight for airport control to Colchester, other neighbors

The Colchester Selectboard had a front-row view of the fight that has emerged over control of the Burlington International Airport.

The board heard Tuesday from representatives of the City of South Burlington, who are pushing for regional governance, and representatives of the airport who favor Burlington keeping control. 

The Selectboard has not yet made a decision on whether it would support a study group around separating the airport from Burlington's control. Winooski passed a resolution to join South Burlington's effort. The City of Burlington opposes the change. 

Williston and Shelburne also considered resolutions at meetings Tuesday but did not take action. 

The Burlington International Airport is owned by the City of Burlington, but it is located in South Burlington. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger appoints the airport's director of aviation. There is an advisory Airport Commission with four representatives from Burlington and one from South Burlington. The Burlington City Council would have final say on whether a study group should be convened.

South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn and City Council member Thomas Chittenden urged Colchester's Selectboard said regional governance would ensure all stakeholders are at the table for large decisions that affect towns surrounding the airport. 

"South Burlington, nor Williston, nor Winooski, nor Colchester, nor Shelburne or any of the other communities, nor the state for that matter, have a say in its governance," Dorn said. "It doesn't make any difference what we think should happen in our community about the airport. It only depends on what the director of aviation and the mayor of Burlington say should happen." 

Chittenden said South Burlington in particular has had to resort to legal remedies, including lawsuits, to solve conflicts with Burlington. He said while the area has been caught up with these distractions, the airport in Plattsburgh, New York, has expanded. 

"I think it's really holding us back from mutual prosperity," Chittenden said.

Colchester Selectboard member Tom Mulcahy said the economic argument "piqued my interest."

"When I first looked at this, I didn't think we had a dog in the fight," Mulcahy said. "But when you look at the airport as being a conduit for those economics, there is an interest." 

Chittenden added that the regionalized governance could help provide more stability in the face of any potential political shifts in Burlington's governance that could affect decision-making on airport issues. He said he wasn't criticizing the way the airport was run on the inside, but was more interested in the rights of towns on the outside.

Gene Richards, director of aviation at the airport, spoke in favor of keeping the current governance model. He cautioned the board against believing everything presented by the South Burlington representatives, saying some fact-checking needs to be done.

"This has been a dysfunctional relationship for some time," Richards said. "We give hundreds of hours per year to South Burlington in explanations and understanding. At the end of the day, we're governed not by the Mayor in any way. The Mayor is a guide and he does the right thing." 

Richards called comparison to Plattsburgh's airport's success "scare tactics." He cited the Burlington International Airport's recent signing of five-year agreements with all its airlines as an example of its success and growth.

Richards said many of the airport's programs are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration,

"It doesn't matter what body you have, you won't make those decisions," Richards said. 

Chittenden said that in 2013, a Burlington International Airport Strategic Planning Committee recommended to the Burlington City Council that it work with the state and other potential regional partners to explore a regional authority model. 

In a letter to Colchester Town Manager Dawn Francis, Mayor Weinberger wrote that municipal ownership of Burlington International Airport has worked successfully for the region for the past 100 years and that change in ownership risks undermining the airport's "role as a regional economic engine." 

"I urge you to consider that there is a real risk that regionalization done wrong, or for parochial reasons, could actually weaken one of the region's most successful economic drivers," Weinberger wrote. "It is possible that a regional authority could complicate the Airport's ability to sustain its improving financial health or serve as a catalyst for economic growth."

It was unclear on Tuesday evening when the board would take formal action on the issue.The next Colchester Selectboard meeting is planned for Sept. 12.

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