After Outcry, Airport Commission Agrees To Reconsider Aspects Of Expansion Project

Jason Graziadei and David Creed •

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After an outcry from neighbors and concerned island residents on Monday, the Nantucket Airport Commission agreed to rework some of the most controversial aspects of a $40 million project to expand the south airfield ramp to accommodate the larger private jets flying to the island in recent years.

Specifically, the commission members agreed to reconsider the proposed berm that would be filled with PFAS-contaminated soil from the airport that was intended to reduce the noise experienced by the residences closest to the south ramp, as well as reduce the amount of tree-clearing associated with the project.

Emotions were high and many of the criticisms directed at the airport were sharp during Monday's joint meeting of the Select Board and the Airport Commission regarding an expansion that some have characterized as accommodating the needs of wealthy private jet owners at the expense of year-round residents. 

"We're building a parking lot for the people that have too much money and too little time to do anything useful so they fly their huge jets out here and we're supposed to make parking for them?" Dr. Tim Lepore asked rhetorically during Monday's meeting. "What's going to the limit? The next time we get a few more planes here, where are we going to park those? You know the movie, where they built a ballfield? 'If you build it, they will come'? Well, they're going to come and then we're going to be stuck again. What are we going to do? Pave Hulbert Avenue?"

While concessions were made following Monday's meeting, the overall project appears to have survived the protests and remains on track. On Tuesday, the airport formally announced that it would reduce the amount of tree clearing by 65 percent and review options for "an alternative noise attenuation feature." However, the airport stated, tree-clearing associated with the project will begin Wednesday morning.

Airport staff and members of the Airport Commission attempted to address the criticisms of the project during the well-attended meeting on Monday.

"The purpose of this ramp expansion, it's not to invite more or larger aircraft, it's really to accommodate the existing demand in a safe and effective manner while also decreasing the noise pollution and emissions caused by the ramp congestion," Airport Commission chair Arthur Gasbarro said.

"I know the berm and the PFAS soil, I think maybe the commission should discuss that," Gasbarro added. "The same message is coming through. I want to tell you we as a commission have discussed the berm long before PFAS and it really was seen as if we were going to do this ramp, that it wasn't a negative impact to all you. I believe that the berm and what they came up with where they have the soil and encapsulate it, really did improve what was there and it was better. But I am getting the message even if that is true, (the berm) is not going to work for our community."

While airport officials have said the berm will be encased with fabric to prevent the PFAS-contaminated soil from continuing to leach into the surrounding area, thus improving the situation for nearby residents, those individuals living closest to the ramp were unconvinced. They said it was as if the airport was creating a "toxic waste dump" near their properties.

By the end of the meeting, a majority of the commissioners indicated they were willing to compromise with respect to the construction of the berm

"We have to be responsive to what you want to do so we are going to rethink the berm," commission member Anthony Bouscaren said. "If you would rather have the trees than the berm then we would have to reconsider that. One thing we can't do is we can't shut down the airport. I mean that is really where we are heading here. So somewhere between that sediment and dealing with the federal government that really controls what we do here. They are paying 90 percent of the bills here. When you take the king's shilling you do the king's bidding, and that is kind of the position we are all in here."

With more than 100 people in attendance for Monday night's meeting, airport neighbors shared their health concerns about the PFAS contamination around the airport caused by the discharge of firefighting foam during drills. They emphasized the impacts already felt - including several neighbors who said they had been diagnosed with cancer - as well as their fears about what they may experience in the future. 

"What is exciting to hear and inspiring is that nobody is coming up here talking about how this berm or cutting these trees down is going to impact their resale value or won’t be able to collect as much on their short-term rental," said island resident Matthew Peel. "Those aren’t the issues. You are hearing it loud and clear. People are scared for their lives, their kids’ lives.”

The project as originally proposed would include the removal of 5.4 acres of forest abutting the residential properties along Monohansett Road and Okorwaw Avenue, where residents have already experienced health issues, including cancer, that they believe is the result of the airport's PFAS contamination. The compromise announced by the airport on Tuesday would decrease the tree-clearing to 1.9 acres.

Airport manager Noah Karberg gave approximately 10 minutes of prepared remarks in which he outlined the history of the project and the time invested in it. He said the south apron expansion began to be publicly discussed in 2013 and has gone through numerous committees and approval processes. In particular, he noted that the berm in question was approved by voters at the 2022 Annual Town Meeting.

Karberg added that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also has identified this as a need for the airport, which led to them providing a $34 million grant.

“My responsibility isn’t just to ensure the safety and health of our surrounding neighbors,” Karberg said. “Currently I have 175,000 combined annual passengers across tenants, corporate jet operators, and commercial passengers. I also have a responsibility to provide a safe airfield and an airfield free of known hazards for each and every one of those individuals. That is what drives my advocacy and development of this project.”

Karberg also reiterated that the airport cannot restrict anyone from utilizing the airport. He said it is a conversation they have had and looked at with multiple people, but the airport is subject to federal grant assurances.

"The FAA has very specific and very exact requirements for a public use airport that accepts federal funding to restrict aircraft in any way," Karberg said. "We are a public-use airport. We have to be there to accept aircraft. I like to use the example of the Massachusetts Turnpike. If you have a car that is insured, inspected, and fit for the road, you are able to drive it onto the turnpike. If you have an aircraft whether that is a two-seat Cessna or a corporate jet, you are allowed to fly it into a public use airport."

Former town counsel Paul DeRensis, who represents a group of abutting property owners, threatened legal action against the Airport Commission in no uncertain terms.

"There are serious legal flaws," DeRensis said of the airport's representations to federal authorities to secure funding and permits for the project. "This includes civil liability, criminal liability, and personal responsibility issues. If the town voluntarily takes advantage of the opportunity you have tonight, then we don't need to go through the things I'm about to mention to you."

DeRensis also suggested that the airport had represented to the FAA and other federal agencies that the property where the ramp expansion is planned was zoned as commercial industrial, or CI, when in fact it is zoned as LUG-3, a far more restrictive zoning designation. He noted that the Planning Board and Select Board have submitted a warrant article for the upcoming Annual Town Meeting to change the zoning from LUG-3 to CI.

Karberg told the Current on Tuesday that the project could proceed regardless of whether the proposed zoning change is passed by Town Meeting. DeRensis and his client, Webster Road resident Jack Halliwell, both declined to comment further, citing ongoing negotiations with the airport.

Richard Sheehan, another neighbor of the airport, described his experience with prostate cancer - which dates back to 2000 when he was first diagnosed. He said he strongly believes the cancer comes from drinking water contaminated by PFAS from airport runoff. He emotionally described the challenges - including an instance where his cancer returned in 2005 and he needed to go through 36 radiation treatments. He has also had to do oral chemotherapy, injections, and many other forms of therapy. He said he wanted to share his story as an emotional plea for the airport to make sure no one else ever has to deal with what he is dealing with.

"I want you people to understand I don't want this to happen to anybody else," Sheehan said. "I don't want people exposed to this crap. What you are doing is criminal. What you are doing is essentially setting up a toxic waste dumpsite. You claim to be able to wrap it and protect us from the mound. I totally disagree. It will eventually break down, you'll have to replace it. What will you do then? Are you going to dig it up and redo it? Why don't you ship it the hell out of here like you're supposed to? I do not understand what you people are doing."

The Airport Commission will revisit the project and any potential modifications at its regular meeting next week.

Decisions however will need to be made sooner rather than later. The Endangered Species Act in Massachusetts has issued a permit for this project, and one of the conditions is that the trees must be cut by April 1st, or else the airport must wait until October 1st due to concerns over endangered bats utilizing the habitat, according to the project's engineer Richard Landin.

Below is the press release issued by the airport on Tuesday:

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