Pressure to Delay Airport Master Plan Vote May Jeopardize Final Approval of Study


Public pressure to delay a vote could prevent adoption of the proposed master plan for Martha's Vineyard Airport, the product of a two-year, $332,370 study.

Conspicuous by its absence from the plan is the failure to designate airport land for a new county jail, a concept which enjoys the support of many in the community.

If a vote on the plan is delayed into 2003, four of the seven seats on the airport commission will have been filled anew by a county commission that is on record as supporting a new jail on airport land. Paul Strauss and Nelson Smith, county commissioners-elect who will take office Jan. 1, have likewise stated their support for the proposition.

"It's been a two-year-long process, and if you wait until after January 1, three of the airport commissioners that worked on it will no longer be available to talk on it," said Tim Carroll, the vice chairman of the airport commission whose term expires Dec. 31.

"I certainly want to move forward with deliberate speed, because the airport should be classified as a good neighbor and address as much as possible of the community concerns," said John Alley, another airport commissioner whose term is about to end. "To proceed ahead without addressing them wouldn't bode well for us."

Also expiring at year's end is the term of chairman Marc Villa, who along with Mr. Carroll and Mr. Alley is eligible for reappointment. The county commission must also fill the seat of Richard Colson, who died in a plane crash last month.

Airport commissioners are scheduled to vote on the master plan Dec. 18. But as of last week, in addition to the county commission, four Island towns, Steamship Authority governor Kathryn Roessel, the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Dukes County sheriff Michael McCormack and the Martha's Vineyard Transit Advisory Board had called upon the airport commission to allow the public more time to digest the recently published airport master plan.

Mr. Carroll said he is doing his best to respond to the concerns raised. "I've reached out to the boards in question and we're trying to schedule times to meet with them," he told the Gazette this week. Mr. Carroll said he has already spoken with Tisbury officials, and that on Tuesday night, airport manager Bill Weibrecht attended the meeting of Oak Bluffs selectmen.

There is much at stake. The Federal Aviation Administration airport plan covers 22 capital projects totaling $27 million. Once approved by the FAA the master plan will serve as the main planning document for the Island airport.

"After adoption, the plan goes to FAA and MAC [Massachusetts Aeronautical Commission]," Mr. Alley explained. "It becomes the blueprint for grant applications. They will look at the master plan when you send requests for money."

But it is the projects for which the master plan does not provide that are its most controversial elements.

"The jailhouse proposal merely got lip service in the master plan," said Mr. Alley.

In a Dec. 4 letter to the airport commissioners, Sheriff McCormack asked for 60 days "for the opportunity to meet with my consultants and explore all of the options that may be available, including, but not limited to, those that are outlined in Chapter 5, Landside Issues of the Master Plan."

Mr. McCormack has requested that 24.4 acres of airport land be made available for the construction of a new jail and a public training facility. The current jail facility is outdated and in disrepair.

So far, in spite of the county commission's unanimous support of the jail, the airport commissioners have followed the lead of the FAA. In 1989, the FAA denied a request by Dukes County to release land for the construction of a jail.

"Construction of the jailhouse of correction at its proposed location would derogate the performance of the Martha's Vineyard VOR [an air navigation aid], impairing the optimum availability of the facility to the flying public, and therefore, would be a hazard to air navigation," reads the master plan, citing language used by the FAA.

On Oct. 2, the airport commission voted down a motion supporting Mr. McCormack's proposal. "On the point of the county jail, it was determined that a permanent release of airport land is not in the best interests of the airport or the airport system in general," reads the master plan.

Still, those calling for a delayed vote have argued that there is a need for greater public involvement.

"In quickly reviewing the draft plan, I noted that there was not a detailed section covering the public process utilized in the creation of the plan," wrote Tisbury town administrator Dennis Luttrell in a Dec. 4 letter to the airport commission. "The [Tisbury] board of selectmen is concerned that there may not be adequate public input from the Island towns at this juncture for the regional airport's plan to be adopted by the airport commission."

"We feel we have the responsibility to our residents and property owners to request several forums for review and comment," wrote Virginia Jones, chairwoman of the West Tisbury planning board.

Public input regarding an airport master plan is encouraged by the FAA but not required, FAA spokesman Jim Peters told the Gazette Tuesday. "We encourage the airports to make their communities aware of what's going on at the airport but there is no regulatory requirement to do so," he said.

The FAA has an 18-page guide regarding citizen participation in airport planning. It states in part that "the right of citizens to be actively involved in molding the plans which will affect their future is fundamental. To be effective, this involvement must begin early enough in the planning program to assert a real influence over its direction and decisions . . . Controversy should be minimized by identifying and resolving issues via citizen involvement before they become controversial."

According to Mr. Weibrecht, an airport advisory committee was established two years ago. The committee advertised its role and sought public ideas and comment, he said.

"We spent two years of public process and we've had a number of public meetings," agreed Mr. Carroll.

In a Nov. 22 letter to Leslie Leland, chairman of the county commission, Mr. Carroll wrote: "The master plan update in general has been undertaken by three overlapping groups working in concert with each other for the past two years: the public advisory team, client group and user group."

The advisory team, according to Mr. Carroll, "met periodically in public meetings" and "heard public comments that were then incorporated into the master plan update." The user group consisted of airport users, like pilots and mechanics; the client group included Mr. Weibrecht, the MAC and the FAA.

The airport is one of approximately 540 commercial service airports in country and one of about 400 that are classified as primary airports because they see more than 10,000 takeoffs each year. It is one of eight such airports in Massachusetts; the others are in Boston, Barnstable, Nantucket, New Bedford, Norwood, Provincetown and Worcester.