Burlington officials spent $2 million for a cluster of condos that they intended to demolish near Burlington International Airport, but they now hope to save the structures.
Owners vacated the homes when the airport bought them in 2016 and 2017 after federal noise standards deemed them uninhabitable. The seven Lily Lane condos in South Burlington are now owned by the City of Burlington, which had intended to demolish the homes or move them from the zone.
Instead, people who work at the airport now live in them rent-free, as Burlington officials work to convince the Federal Aviation Administration, which funded the purchases, to allow the condos to remain standing. Gene Richards, BTV’s director of aviation, said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger encouraged him to “exhaust every opportunity there is to have the homes stay where they are.”
Why the change in plans?
A Federal Aviation Administration grant program required the airport to give 39 homeowners near BTV the opportunity to sell their homes in 2016. All of the Lily Lane owners took advantage of the offer; the last one sold in June 2017.
As part of the FAA program, about 145 houses near the airport have been removed since 1997. But most were “older and in disrepair” compared to the Lily Lane condos, which are well-constructed, energy-efficient units that were built in 2010, Richards said.
“We’re really hoping we don’t have to remove them,” he said. “It’s a unique and special situation.”
The airport workers who live in them now serve as “security caretakers,” according to Richards. Their presence prevents the kind of looting and vandalism that plagued other homes emptied as part of the program, he said.
The caretakers pay utilities and keep the homes tidy. Airport maintenance staff perform any needed repairs, such as fixing a broken pipe.
“That’s very traditional for any homes we buy,” Richards said. “We’re required to make sure they’re safe at all times. When people did break in, we had to go board them up and that’s a lose-lose situation.”
The current situation, according to Richards, is a “win-win” because the tenants are people “who were having housing challenges and wanted to do something different.”
“This gives them the opportunity to work close to home and have a favorable living situation,” he said.
Last week, flower beds and garden plots at the units appeared tidy. Children’s toys and bikes sat in front of some of the homes. A waste company collected trash.
Lily Lane is surrounded by grassy lots on the north side of Kirby Road, where other homes purchased as part of the FAA program once sat.
The tenants don’t have traditional leases and could have to leave on short notice if there’s a decision from the FAA. A new sound-exposure map is due out in late November or early December, and Richards hopes it will give the airport more leeway in deciding the future of these buildings.
Weinberger said he's seen preliminary versions of the report that show the noise contour lines have shifted enough to allow the homes to remain standing.
"There are details still to be determined here about whether this plan is going to work and whether these homes can be saved, but I am increasingly hopeful that it might be possible," Weinberger said.
The arrival of the Vermont Air National Guard's F-35 fighter jets next year is a major part of the equation. Weinberger said the noise will actually be less intense for some homes alongside the runways and louder for houses at the ends of the runways. The Lily Lane homes are alongside the runways, though not far from the end.
Once the new maps are issued, Richards said, the airport intends to pursue sound-mitigation measures for some homes.
South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn endorsed that strategy.
“We would certainly hope it doesn’t lead to more demolition,” he said. “We have a real housing challenge in the area.”
If the Lily Lane homes are given a stay of execution, Richards said the city would need to figure out what to do next. The goal would be to keep them affordable, and they might need further soundproofing. The FAA would have much of the say in the matter, though the city would work to “figure out what is best for the community,” Richards said.
Weinberger said it's too early to tell what would happen.
"We still need to clear some regulatory hurdles to reintroducing these as longterm residences consistent with the FAA regulations," the mayor said. "If and when we get over those hurdles, then there will be a lot of details to be sorted out."
Burlington officials have been in touch with their South Burlington counterparts about the condos, according to Richards. South Burlington has long opposed the destruction of homes near the airport.
“It’s the loss of affordable housing stock that is hard for me to swallow,” said Meaghan Emery, vice chair of the South Burlington City Council. “Countywide, there’s been a call for more affordable housing and it’s not easy to come by.”
Neighbors on Kirby Road have concerns of their own. The Lily Lane condos stand between Bunny Myrick's home and the airport. She's unhappy her neighbors sold out because the lack of homes provides less of a noise buffer.
"More open space equals more sound — even without the louder planes," said Myrick, referring to the incoming F-35s.