By Eileen O’Grady
and Mike Donoghue
The Shelburne Selectboard is reviewing a proposal from the City of South Burlington asking the Town of Shelburne along with six other nearby municipalities share governance of Burlington International Airport.
Mounting tensions between the cities of Burlington and South Burlington regarding responsibility for the airport – owned by Burlington but located in South Burlington – has sparked the resolution to transition airport ownership to the state.
The proposal suggests a 13-member commission consisting of representatives from Burlington, South Burlington, Shelburne, Winooski, Williston, Essex and Colchester would govern the airport. South Burlington and Winooski so far have approved
South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn and City Councilor Thomas Chittenden presented the proposal to the Shelburne Selectboard at its Aug. 8 meeting. South Burlington is concerned about decreased ridership on airplanes, Dorn said, and the city also feels burdened by the City of Burlington essentially governing the airport within South Burlington’s borders.
“We don’t want to see the airport go into further decline,” Dorn said.
Chittenden stressed approving the resolution would not involve any commitment for Shelburne other than to agree to continue the conversation. The hope is that the interest from neighboring communities may help spark Burlington to come to the table, he said.
The proposal first surfaced in February and once it was fine-tuned and approved in South Burlington, city officials began speaking to other communities.
Airport Commissioner Bill Keogh during a Shelburne Selectboard meeting Aug. 22 said he thought South Burlington’s proposal was a “misguided effort.” Any proposal to expand governance of the airport would have to be approved by voters of Burlington and by the Federal Aviation Administration, he said, noting that 90 percent of the airport’s funding is federal dollars.
“The issue between Burlington and South Burlington, which is growing much more than we appreciate, seems to be the pedagogue decision to bring the F35 to the Burlington Airport,” Keogh said. “That is a very controversial issue.”
The Vermont Air National Guard is expected to receive new F-35 fighter jets in the fall of 2019. The Pentagon is replacing the F-16s, which are now based across from the passenger terminal in South Burlington. The louder noise from the new aircraft is expected to impact thousands in nearby communities.
South Burlington officials are also unhappy the Burlington airport bought 200 homes and took them off the South Burlington city tax rolls, but Chittenden said this proposal has nothing to do with that.
Chittenden pointed out that New York’s governor is providing help to the airport in Plattsburgh. Likewise, a regional board in Burlington could give the Vermont governor a seat at the table. He said there could be political capital advocating for the region.
Keogh said Burlington would want some financial consideration for the airport, which he said is valued at $52 million.
South Burlington officials have argued that the airport was primarily built with federal and state tax dollars and little, if any, Burlington taxpayer funds.
Last year, Burlington paid South Burlington $105,000 as a payment in lieu of property taxes. South Burlington also collected about $140,000 in tax assessments for property leased to airport businesses, including private hangers, city officials said.
The City of Winooski supports South Burlington’s proposed resolution. Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker also spoke to the Shelburne Selectboard Aug. 22, outlining Winooski’s reasons for wanting a say in the management of the airport.
“Decisions are being made now about our community with zero representation from our community, and we think that’s inequitable,” Baker said.
“The Burlington International Airport is a huge asset for the city of Burlington, for the region as a whole, for the state as a whole. We see it as successful, we want to help strengthen it,” she said.
Nicolas Lango, director of planning and development for the airport, expressed a desire to continue the conversation about the proposed expansion of governance, but asked Shelburne officials to fact-check South Burlington’s proposal.
“The airport does provide an enormous amount of economic impact to this entire region,” Lango said. “What deters us from this concept is the way in which it was produced, and the miscommunication we had with the City of South Burlington and Winooski on some of these items.”
Shelburne Selectboard Chairman Gary von Stange questioned why Shelburne would want to get involved in the airport issue, saying Shelburne has many concerns about the idea.
Selectboard member Jerry Story noted the economic impact the airport could have on the town. “A lot of people in Shelburne depend upon that airport. And more could,” he said.
Selectboard member Josh Dein asked why not support regionalization when it came to the airport because of the area it serves.
There was some irony about the airport proposal, which was discussed immediately after the Selectboard agreed to move forward with possible regionalization for public safety dispatching. That proposal also is in the early discussion stage.
Keogh said the airport could provide Shelburne officials with more information.