Beta Expansion at Airport Hits Snag Over SoBu Parking Regs | Off Message

Beta Expansion at Airport Hits Snag Over SoBu Parking Regs


The Beta facility at BTV - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • The Beta facility at BTV
Beta Technologies' plan to construct an electric aircraft manufacturing plant at the Burlington International Airport hit a snag last week over the placement of a parking lot, prompting outcry from the fast-growing startup and Gov. Phil Scott.

South Burlington's Development Review Board gave conditional approval to the master plan for Beta's 40-acre airport campus. But a single condition — that the company erect a building to block a parking lot from view along Williston Road — could sink the project entirely, the company claimed.

Scott addressed the matter at his weekly press conference Tuesday, just as the municipal board was voting to reopen Beta's application, a sign that it may reconsider its recent decision. Failure to do so, Scott told reporters, could prompt Beta to move its manufacturing plant to Plattsburgh, N.Y., where it already tests its experimental aircraft, or elsewhere.

"We can't let that happen," he said. "This is too important."

Scott said he would ask state legislators to step in should South Burlington officials fail to waive the city's parking lot requirements or otherwise resolve the issue quickly

“This is not just about jobs for Chittenden County; this is going to have a ripple effect across the entire state,” Scott said of Beta’s proposal. “I think this is as big as when IBM decided to locate in Vermont. This is going to have that big an impact on us.”
South Burlington land-use regulations require that parking lots for newly constructed buildings be located behind or alongside them, not in front. Beta's master plan calls for its 344,000-square-foot manufacturing and office building to be placed as close to the airport tarmac as possible, pushing the 300-plus space parking lot toward the road.

The company's long-term plan includes a commercial building along Williston Road that would block the lot from view, but Beta wants to build it during a later phase of development. The company told the review board that they don’t have any tenants lined up for the building, which costs $5 million, and they’d be diverting the money away from their business to sink into an empty building.

 In the interim, the campus would be out of compliance with city parking rules.
Rendering of site as viewed from Williston Road following initial phase of master plan - PHOTO COURTESY BETA TECHNOLOGIES
  • Photo courtesy Beta Technologies
  • Rendering of site as viewed from Williston Road following initial phase of master plan
Company officials and South Burlington city planners put forward a proposal to create a temporary public park until the commercial building is constructed. The idea was that the park would fall under a regulatory exemption for lots where the principal use is public recreation.

The Development Review Board, however, concluded that the principal use of the overall "lot" was not recreational, so the park "is therefore insufficient to permit the parking as proposed," members wrote in a 16-page decision issued March 22.

Beta contends the board has the authority to waive the rules under an "unusual hardship" exemption in the city's municipal regulations.

The board voted on Tuesday to reopen Beta's application and hold another hearing in late April. The decision followed a brief closed-door session with little public discussion of members' thinking.

"In the course of our deliberations, the board identified some additional information that would help the board reach a decision," chair Dawn Philibert said when the meeting began.

Underhill entrepreneur and engineer Kyle Clark founded Beta several years ago with the backing of United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt, who is seeking to use electric aircraft to one day transport artificial human organs.

Beta emerged last year as a leader in the still-speculative electric aircraft field. With just two full-sized prototypes, the company landed a purchase agreement with UPS and secured $368 million in new investment, including from Amazon's Climate Pledge Fund.

The governor's willingness to insert himself into a municipal parking matter reflects how much clout the start-up has accrued with elected leaders in a state that lacks large private employers.

Beta is currently headquartered in an airport-owned building south of the main passenger terminal. It currently employs around 350 people, according to the company. The expansion project, if realized, could add another 500, Beta said at the time it submitted initial plans to South Burlington in the spring of 2021.

In a statement Tuesday, Beta called the board's latest action an "important step," but said the project "still remains uncertain."

"As we have said all along, we believe that the best outcome, both for us and the greater community, is to grow here in Vermont," the statement read. "We want to stay here in Vermont so are continuing to work with the City of South Burlington to find a quick resolution in hopes of keeping this site, and the jobs, here."

Colin Flanders contributed to this report.

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