November 18, 2017

Airport director defends ownership

Williston Selectboard considers joining push for regional control

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The director of aviation at Burlington International Airport came to Williston on Tuesday to defend the City of Burlington’s record of airport ownership in the face of calls to regionalize airport control.

The Williston Selectboard is considering signing onto a resolution requesting the City of Burlington form a committee to study regional ownership to include representation from the cities and towns closest to the airport. The city councils of South Burlington and Winooski have already signed onto the resolution.

South Burlington City Council member Tom Chittenden and City Manager Kevin Dorn appeared before the selectboard in August to push for regionalization. They noted that the airport is outside Burlington city limits and argued that representation from all the nearby municipalities would free the airport from Burlington regulations, increase its bonding power and promote regional harmony.

Director of Aviation Gene Richards said Tuesday their arguments are fueled by ongoing disagreements between Burlington and South Burlington over airport property taxes and noise impacts to South Burlington residents.

“It’s more of a vendetta,” he said. “To take the airport from the city, I think that is a bad precedent to set. That’s not what Vermonters do.”

The selectboard plans to make a decision about whether to sign the regionalization resolution at its Sept. 19 meeting.

Board member Jeff Fehrs supports the idea of Williston having representation in airport governance.

“Williston is impacted by the airport,” he said. “We literally border the end of the runway. It makes sense for Williston to have representation on whatever it is that governs the airport. Why wouldn’t we do that?”

Board member Ted Kenney believes the airport is running smoothly and did not offer support for a change in governance. The airport is one of many things that affect Williston that the town has no control over, like the interstate highway, he said. Kenney also didn’t buy into the arguments Chittenden and Dorn presented in August.

“I was disappointed in the presentation from South Burlington,” Kenney said. “It was a little more heated than I would expect if it were an objective presentation.”

Richards described the airport as a self-funding enterprise that has no direct impact on Burlington taxpayers. However, the airport relies on several city departments — such as police, finance and the city attorney — for ongoing management, he said.

Being part of a regional airport authority would come with about $2 million in annual cost to the town, Richards estimates, and responsibility for $35 million in bonded debt.

“If you do get involved, you wouldn’t be getting into it for free,” he said. “You would have to participate in a financial way.”

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