After Several Decades, Efforts to Extend Airstrip Make Headway

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After Several Decades, Efforts to Extend Airstrip Make Headway

Courtesy of VTrans Aviation Department

Courtesy of VTrans Aviation Department

Courtesy of VTrans Aviation Department

Courtesy of VTrans Aviation Department

By Alessandria Schumacher

Seldom known to Middlebury College students, there is, in fact, an airport right here in Addison County. Located south on Route 7 in East Middlebury lies the Middlebury State Airport that sees only about one plane per hour.  Every town plan for Middlebury since 1989 has proposed the extension of the runway at this small, regional airport, but no expansion has happened.  However, that may change soon, given recent funding pledged by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the support of many Middlebury residents.  Despite general support for the runway expansion among town administrators, some residents, specifically those who live near the airport, have reservations about the expansion.

Recent support from the FAA has served as the necessary push to make the decades-old idea a reality.

“The FAA is going to support 90 percent of the cost for the extension of the runway, and the state is going to cover the other ten percent of the cost,” said Jamie Gaucher, Executive Director for the Office of Business Development for Middlebury.  He said this sort of external funding has not been available for years, so previously, the cost would have had to come from local sources.

According to Guy Rouelle, Aeronautics Administrator for VTrans Aviation Division, the project is moving forward now because of strong leadership and favorable relationships.

“The relationships of the town have been good with the state, but they [historically]have not been so good that we could move this ahead,” Rouelle said.  Recently, relationships have been better, which is why the project is taking off now.

The runway has been functioning for so long without this extension, which raises the question of whether the improvement is really necessary.

Safety, modernization and economic growth seem to be the main reasons to extend the runway.

“That’s the primary driver: an increase in safety,” Gaucher said.  He cited the extension, widening and repaving of the 2500 foot runway and the straightening of the taxiway as examples of improvements to increase flight safety.

Rouelle elaborated on how the runway extension would increase safety and year round accessibility of the airstrip.

In the summer, he explained, “the useable runway length is actually quite less because of the pressure and density of a hot day.”

“During the winter months, when the runway is slightly contaminated [with ice and snow], the runway length is significantly shorter,” Rouelle said. Having a longer runway will allow flights to come and go more consistently, no matter the season.

As two state senators and nine state representatives noted in a letter in 2006, expansion of the airport offers increases in safety to the community at large.

“Increased runway length will … make the airport more useable by a wider variety of safety related flights including air ambulance, forest fire support, search and rescue and disaster response,” they wrote to Jason Owen, Aviation Project Manager for VTrans.

Currently, the Middlebury Airport does not have jet fuel, GPS technology or lights on its runway.  While those additions are not part of the slated extension of the runway, there are hopes that such modernizations would be the next step, bringing the airport into the 21st century.

“I have been approached by a private entity that has expressed interest in underwriting the cost for a modern fuel system and GPS instrumentation and making those things publicly available,” Gaucher said.  Such technologies would also improve safety.

Investment in the runway expansion is an investment in public infrastructure.  Representatives from the town and from VTrans see this as a way to bring economic activity to Middlebury by increasing accessibility and by creating the opportunity for development and innovation centered on aviation and technology.

“The city itself will greatly benefit from a runway extension in that more people will use the airport. ,” Rouelle said. “We have a lot of second home owners who fly in,” Rouelle said.  While many residents will likely not use the airport, more air traffic increases the ease of getting to Middlebury for those who come by plane.

“Airport users will come in more and they’ll spend their money in the local economy,” Rouelle continued.

Gaucher, who works to bring economic development to Middlebury, sees the economic benefits beyond attracting people who will spend money locally.

In Middlebury, Gaucher explained, “[there is a] lack of infrastructure for innovation-based economic development.”  He aims to leverage new infrastructure for economic development.

“[Airports] are very similar to hospitals in that they lend themselves to many different technologies,” Gaucher said. He does not see any other airport in Vermont taking advantage of research and development opportunities related to aviation, which is a niche that the Middlebury airport could fill if expanded.

“Whether those technologies are transportation technologies or manufacturing technologies or signal processing or artificial intelligence or nano-coatings or fuel efficiencies or battery powered flight or biofuels,” Gaucher said, “I want to create an opportunity to take advantage of that, and I see the airport as a way for our community to take advantage of that.”

Gaucher hopes that the airport upgrade will bring new businesses to the airport area, and Rouelle noted that it will help the two existing businesses already operating there.

Town officials, including the Select Board, are in favor of the runway extension. Rouelle noted that the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) and Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) also support the project.  Back in 2006, the executive directors of ACRPC and ACEDC, eleven state legislators and the former owner of Otter Creek Brewing, Inc. all wrote letters of support for the runway extension for many of the same reasons: safety, expanded access and economic activity.   Some organizations and private donors even pledged funding, but clearly nothing happened despite widespread support.

However, not all Middlebury residents are so happy to see the project making headway.  Many residents, especially among the 600 plus households within two miles of the airport, have concerns about the project’s effect on the aquifer and noise level.

Rouelle acknowledged that concerns of this sort are natural and that VTrans is doing everything possible to address the concerns, including sound studies.

“This airfield has historically only seen about 7500 operations [annually] … If you average that out, it’s about one flight per hour year round,” Rouelle said.  The Environmental Protection Agency requires that federally funded projects meet standards for noise tolerance. However, the EPA does not typically consider noise a problem with facilities that see fewer than 10,000 operations per year.

Sound experts have collected data on noise disturbance on the airway, which average 42 to 58 dnl, a measure of sound.  The FAA considers something noisy that is close to 70 dnl, according to Rouelle.  VTrans has still agreed to monitor noise levels off the airfield, closer to where people live.

Those planning the expansion were unapologetic about the negative side of living near the airport, which is a region zoned for aviation purposes.

“The airport is considered an airport district, so folks that have moved up to Vermont in the past several years and bought a home in an airport district or near an airport district should have been well aware that there is an airport nearby,” Rouelle said.

Gaucher likened the concerns about noise to people who move in next to a dairy farm and are upset by the smell of cows.

The airport sits on a designated aquifer, which citizens worry will be contaminated by increased plane traffic or closed off by the increase in impervious surface from the runway expansion.

“We’re increasing the total amount of impervious surface … by 1.3 percent,” Rouelle said, trying to show that the risk to aquifer recharge would be minimal.  “We are doing everything we can, and will continue to make sure that we don’t have any fuel spills on the airfield, that property users on the airfield are not dumping oil out behind the hangar.”

However, some residents are concerned with who this will benefit, not just who it will harm.

“Are we just funding a project for some private individuals who are lucky enough to be able to afford a plane?” Ruth Hardy said to VTDigger.

Yet, those planning the expansion argue that the community as a whole will feel the economic benefit.

Considering differing opinions, ambivalent leadership and lack of funding, it comes as no surprise that this project has stalled for so long. As Lawrence Miller, former owner of Otter Creek Brewing Inc., wrote even back in 2006, the project “has been discussed for decades.”

Given the recent support from the FAA and the state, the dream of having funds for this project has become a reality.  As Rouelle noted, leadership has recently come together in a concerted effort to bring this project to fruition.

As it stands now, 65 percent of the plan will be presented in a community meeting on Dec. 6.  After that, the project will go out to bid mid-March and apply to the FAA for grant money by May 1.

“We will most likely start clearing trees next fall,” Rouelle said.  “Then we’ll come back in the spring and start construction on the project.”

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