Town shies away from airport fight

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Colchester Selectboard members expressed little interest in wading into the battle for control of the Burlington International Airport last Monday, weeks after reps from neighboring towns dueled it out at the Blakely Rd. building.

“At this stage, I don’t think that Burlington is willing to let anybody else into the sandbox, and I think it’s their call,” selectman Herb Downing said at a board work session last Monday.

South Burlington city manager Kevin Dorn and city councilor Thomas Chittenden first approached the board in August, asking it to join in a push for regional governance of the aviation hub.

The airport, which is located entirely in South Burlington but managed as a department by the city of Burlington, has caused friction between the municipalities for years.

The rocky relationship was on full display during the Colchester meeting, as Chittenden and Dorn traded barbs with BIA director of aviation Gene Richards. Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger weighed in through a letter to town manager Dawn Francis.

“It’s time for a change. This is a massively important piece of economic development infrastructure for our city,” Dorn told the board. “Communities nearby and far away are affected by operations and decisions made [at the airport.]”

In a joint resolution, the South Burlington City Council named Colchester, Winooski, Williston, Essex and Shelburne as interested parties.

According to that document, the Winooski City Council requested a position on the Burlington Airport Commission, which currently boasts one South Burlington delegate and four from Burlington, last November but never received a response.

Colchester Selectboard members engaged only briefly during the original presentation, but all present revealed similar reservations at the work session.

“There’s a lot of merit to South Burlington’s claims, but I don’t think we have a dog in this fight,” selectman Jeff Bartley said. “If we’re going to take on some role, there might be a financial impact for the town, and I don’t want to start supporting something like that until we have a better idea of what that might look like.”

Board member Jacki Murphy agreed, noting the presented resolution lacked meat and worried the non-committal language made Colchester’s potential future role unclear.

Selectman Tom Mulcahy’s opinion differed only slightly.

“I do believe we have a dog in the fight, and that dog is our economic values that travel through that airport to get to and from businesses here in Colchester,” he said.

Still, he stood by the consensus that Burlington and South Burlington needed to engage in “some interaction” with each other before adding other municipalities into the mix.

“As one of the larger towns in the state and the county, we do have an interest in a vibrant working airport,” Downing agreed, pointing to the successful regional governance of the Chittenden Solid Waste District and Champlain Water District. “I agree that much, but I’m not going to vote for this resolution.”

The Colchester Selectboard was expected to officially vote on the measure during its meeting Tuesday, Sept. 26, after the Sun’s press deadline.