Uncertainty and anxiety now pervade a 23-year-old program involving the purchase and planned demolition of scores of homes in a high-noise zone adjacent to Burlington International Airport.
Several remaining neighbors affected by the emptying of those houses and subsequent vandalism to many of them expressed anger and worry at a South Burlington city council meeting Monday night.
Aviation director Gene Richards (seated in photo) repeatedly assured the council that Burlington, the owner of the airport, wants to "mend relations" with South Burlington and to ensure "a better tomorrow." But airport officials were unable to allay concerns about the future of the buyout program or the condition and fate of some 60 vacated homes.
These already-purchased properties are slated to be wrecked or moved away. But a lawsuit filed in Vermont Supreme Court is preventing implementation of that plan, airport planning and development director Bob McEwing (standing in photo) told about 100 residents attending the council meeting at the Chamberlin School.
The vacated homes are meanwhile being vandalized "across the board," added council member Pat Nowak. "Glass has been replaced again and again" in smashed windows in several houses, she said. South Burlington councilors have assessed the current state of about 80 properties in the high-noise zone, Nowak reported.
"We try to keep them secure," McEwing commented prior to Nowak's remarks, "but it's pretty tough." Richards added, "We spend an abnormal amount of resources to take care of those homes."
Lorrie Doering, a longtime resident of Airport Parkway, responded emotionally in a public comment session following the officials' presentations.
Doering noted that she lives next door to a bought-out home that has stood vacant for the past 10 years. Local politicians and airport overseers have failed to explain what is happening to her neighborhood, she said. "There's been 23 years of nothing, and there's been no answers tonight," Doering declared, adding, "The only way to get anyone's attention is to come unglued, and I've come unglued a million times."
McEwing said earlier in the session that a total of 130 local homes have been bought through a Federal Aviation Administration program targeted at areas deemed unfit for residential use due to noise levels from airport operations. Initially, the home-buying initiative for BTV covered homes exposed to average 24-hour noise of 70 decibels or higher. That threshold was reduced to 65 decibels in 2008, which was around the time that the F-16 fighter jet began "flying more often" from the Vermont Air Guard Base at the airport, McEwing noted.
Federal funding was made available then for the purchase of 20 homes per year in the affected area, he continued. But subsequent reductions in the FAA budget will result in no more than four homes being purchased annually for the next six years, McEwing said.
The airport has designated 28 still-occupied homes closest to the terminal and runways as "highest priority" for purchases, he noted.
Will money actually be available for these intended buyouts? Richards was asked by councilor Rosanne Greco. "I don't know, and you don't know," the airport chief replied. "There's no guarantees the 28 will be bought. There's no guarantees with government money."
Richards acknowledged resistance in South Burlington to the purchase and demolition of additional homes in the vicinity of the airport. Burlington officials "have been told that you want alternatives," Richards said in his remarks to the council. "We'll see if there are any."
The lawsuit brought by George Maille, whose home sits directly opposite the JetBlue terminal, argues that the South Burlington zoning office acted improperly in granting permits for demolition of 54 homes in the high-noise area. The applications to tear down the houses should also have been referred to the city's Development Review Board, Maille maintains.
Vermont's Environmental Court ruled against Maille's suit earlier this year. He has appealed that outcome to the Vermont Supreme Court, and, until the case is resolved, home demolitions cannot be resumed.
Maille said in an interview Tuesday morning that removal of houses will actually worsen the effects of airport noise on many of the remaining residents. The buildings awaiting demolition act as a barrier for sounds from the airport, he noted.