Airport Neighbors Express Frustration Over Expansion Project To Airport Commission

David Creed •

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With the Nantucket Airport’s expansion project set to begin on March 4th, its neighbors remain unhappy and aggravated with the project's location, the negative impact they believe it will have on their properties, and the removal of trees and wildlife in the area.

The discussion continued Tuesday evening during the Airport Commission’s monthly meeting, and at times got heated with several neighbors expressing their displeasure. One topic among the many that were discussed was whether the airport could ban or place limitations on the private aircraft coming and going from the island to minimize the need for expansion. Airport officials were adamant that wasn't an option.

“Yes, it is Nantucket, but it is also still the United States of America,” Airport Commission chair Arthur Gasbarro said when asked about petitioning the FAA to limit the size and number of private aircraft coming into the airport.

The question came from community member Bob Thomas, who asked whether this means there is an infinite capacity at the airport and if more and more private planes come to Nantucket, will the airport need to keep expanding.

Gasbarro and airport manager Noah Karberg said that while it was a reasonable and good question, they can’t prevent landings from happening and that this project is more about the airport being able to accommodate larger aircraft, not more aircraft. Karberg explained that the FAA has never granted a public-use airport the ability to dictate which aircraft can and cannot utilize the airport.

Island resident Meghan Perry Glowacki circled back to the discussion later in the meeting and asked for clarification on why the FAA required them to accommodate all aircraft. Karberg responded by saying that the first agreement the airport signed with the federal government was in 1946 or 1947 when the town of Nantucket accepted the airport and facilities built on the condition they be made available for public use.

“Every grant that the airport has assumed since 1946, 1947, and there's probably been one or two a year, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding, both the Airport Commission and the Select Board signs off on this sheet of grant assurances that says we will continue to maintain and make this airport available on a reasonable and non-discriminatory use for operators of aircraft,” Karberg said. “This isn't unique to Nantucket. There are 3,000 airports across the country and many of them answer this exact kind of question and have this exact same set of conversations.”

But that was just one of several concerns/topics discussed during the roughly 90-minute hearing.

Emily Molden, the Nantucket Land and Water Council’s executive director, kicked off the public comment following a brief presentation outlining the phases of the expansion, which is expected to be completed in late July. She voiced a pair of concerns including how the airport plans to monitor emissions and the construction of the noise berm.

"The airport is working on enhanced ramp monitoring and management that will go for not only the expanded area but for the overall ramp and recognizes that there has been a change in the fleet mix to some extent,” Gasbarro said. “And so with that, there needs to be increased and improved focus on that ramp and the operations there.”

He and Karberg mentioned there will be new noise monitoring stations and cameras for the ramp that personnel and staff will be able to use to monitor the area around the clock to ensure pilots follow rules and that operations are running smoothly.

As for the berm, Gasbarro said it “will not just be a big dirt pile” and will have established vegetation through seeding that may take a season or two to reach its full potential.

The 15-foot berm is being built between Monohansett Road and the airport perimeter. The berm is intended to prevent the noise of aircraft coming and going from the airport from traveling to neighboring properties. It will be constructed with “a variety of soils” according to the project’s engineer – Richard Lasdin – including piles of the much-discussed PFAS-contaminated soil that already sits on airport property.

When constructing the berm, the ground will be lined with a fabric before the soil is placed on top of it, and then the berm will be topped with a fabric followed by soil and grass being put over it.

When Molden asked about the long-term monitoring of this fabric encapsulating the soil, Lasdin said this encapsulation process is what is used across the country when closing landfills and will provide information at a later date as to how the monitoring process will be conducted. He stated the fabric will keep PFAS contained within the berm, protected from environmental factors such as snow and rain, and not allow the PFAS to leach out and spread to nearby areas.

When addressing emissions, Gasbarro said he agrees the airport needs to work to measure and have quantifiable data on the run times of the aircraft. He added later in the meeting that the purpose of this expansion is to shorten the run times of aircraft on the field by giving them a place to park rather than the current situation, which leaves aircraft running on the airfield while they drop off passengers at times due to lack of space. When no parking is available, aircraft are forced to fly in, drop off passengers, fly out to Hyannis to park, and return when passengers are ready to be picked up - creating additional trips and more emissions.

While those were three of the main logistical concerns with the project voiced by several speakers, several neighbors on abutting properties to the expansion area voiced their displeasure with how the project was designed, the airport's perceived lack of communication, and their ability to provide input.

Richard Sheehan was one neighbor who expressed his frustration with the eradication of the woodland habitat directly behind his home, which needs to be removed for both the noise berm and apron space. He said the development of this expansion is “incredibly disheartening and tragic.”

“I believe the public cannot appreciate the scope of the project unless they actually stand here and take it in,” Sheehan said. “We have 10 acres of mixed woodland (Karberg claimed it to be six acres later on in the meeting) which is habitat for local wildlife and plant species, some of which are rare I believe. And even though they're not endangered, they're deserving of our respect and consideration. I have not heard anything about how that's going to be dealt with, but I don't think it's going to be good.”

"The bottom line is that the airport is eliminating a wildlife habitat to create parking for the private jet industry,” Sheehan continued. “Private jets are the worst polluters in the aviation business per passenger. How can such a non-solution be considered the best option as far as environmental disturbance and operating efficiencies are concerned? I do not understand how there cannot be another place around the airport to put these planes."

Mimi Huber, Sheehan's wife, asked why the other side of the airport was not being considered. She also questioned why the airport is inviting larger jets to the island and why the airport isn’t limiting the size of the jets and the number of jets that are coming to Nantucket.

Karberg responded by saying discussions about the expansion go all the way back to 2004 when environmental assessments and environmental impact reports were completed. He said the airport had originally looked at shifting its entire general aviation operation over to the "Bunker area" with access off Old South Road and Bunker Road.

"The airport looked at this in 2004 and the environmental impacts end up being more (if moved to the Bunker area)," Karberg said. "Not only do you have to put six acres of ramp in one site versus the other, but you need to add all of the ancillary pavements, taxiways, buildings. That ends up taking up more habitat that requires more carbon and more energy to construct. The habitat on the bunker side of the airport frankly, it's more valuable from an ecological standpoint than the habitat south of the South Apron.”

“The habitat on the east side of the airport is highly valued by the state permitting agency,” Karberg continued. “They go by the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. This is their evaluation, not mine.”

After Gasbarro said the airport has tried to be a good neighbor and transparent another airport neighbor, Peter MacKay, disputed that and called Gasbarro's claim “bizarre.” He voiced his displeasure with the airport and what he perceives as a lack of effort to get in touch with himself and other neighbors.

"You guys know us here because we were the PFAS folks,” MacKay said. “Everyone at the Airport Commission has our emails. They know when this location was chosen, apparently without opportunity for opinion realistically, that it's going to impact the very smallest area that has residential houses next to the airport.”

MacKay and his wife, Alison, said they were dealing with PFAS back when the 30-day appeal period for this project was open in 2021.

"We were dealing with PFAS then. That was brand new. I've had cancer, so has my brother, the dogs have died, we've all been affected by that and you think we're going to be thinking about airport expansion?” MacKay questioned. “Just look at all the people that are here now when it's actually public and unfortunately, probably, it's a done deal. If it was actually communicated with, if you were transparent, this whole dialogue would have been occurring back in 2021, not now. I don't know what else to say other than the fact that I'm disgusted.”

Karberg responded by referencing documents that go back to the working group that looked at the ultimate development and master plan of the airport back in 2014. He explained that the south apron and its location was spoken of extensively during that process. He said since the permitting process began in 2019, they have engaged the community and had outreach and engagement from neighbors who took advantage of opportunities in the public comment portion of commission meetings.

“This was a long-term planning outreach. It didn't begin in 2022. It didn't begin in 2019. It went back to at least 2014 - the issues of moving the ramp to alternate locations,” Karberg said. “A good effort was originally taken in 2014 and we looked again at alternative locations with this effort in 2019 and 2021, and it's the same issues moving the ramp to another location. The other location is biologically more valuable. That's not my word for it. I think that is the state's assessment.”

The noise berm also created some concern with neighbors asking if common ground could be found to keep some of the existing trees and habitat in place as a barrier between the homes and the apron. One neighbor, Adam Ross, even asked if the berm could just be abandoned altogether with the existing habitat as the only buffer.

While the berm will not be abandoned, decreasing the size of it is something airport officials said they would continue evaluating but did not sound optimistic about being able to do so.

The airport does however appear to be open to modifications of the berm, which were discussed during another public hearing on the project on January 12th and again on Tuesday.

Doug Kepple, another neighbor of the airport, asked the airport last month if they would consider extending the berm south about 20 feet and turning it east to cradle the last aircraft with the berm. He said this modification would limit the amount of noise traveling beyond the airfield to neighboring properties and that it could save “about 50 houses an insufferable amount of noise."

Airport officials, while discussing their efforts to be transparent with the community, said they also had many conversations and dialogues with the Surfside Association while constructing this plan. This was confirmed by the association’s president Tom Quigley during the meeting. Quigley said he supports the project and that they had requested a noise berm a while back.

"The Surfside Association has been working for years with the Airport Commission on this whole area of expansion. We originally requested a long time ago that a berm be built for noise and pollution purposes, and it has come to fruition,” Quigley said. “Then I found out that the berm was going to be constructed with the PFAS soils that are contained on the airport. I was concerned until I saw the construction drawings and went through them in great detail and found that the encapsulation process is very unique and very good, and I applaud them for taking this point. We've been involved, as I said, for a long time, and you do not have to be a member of the Surfside Association to attend our meetings or receive information. We've been representing the ones that live in the area. I'm sorry that the individuals that have spoken before me have the concerns.” Quigley encouraged any neighbors with concerns or questions to reach out.

Perry asked if there would be another public meeting to discuss this project. Gasbarro reiterated they have public comment at the beginning and end of every meeting.

"I certainly want to be aware of and address questions, concerns to the extent that we can," Gasbarro said. "I also want to get the information out to the community and to the neighbors about the project. The (airport) staff is there for contact on it and here also to then convey that back to the commission. Everybody is working hard on this but no Ms. Perry, we're not going to have a meeting like this every month."

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