Burlington Reverses Decision to Demolish Homes Near the Airport | Development | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Reverses Decision to Demolish Homes Near the Airport

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The Kirby Cottages in South Burlington - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • The Kirby Cottages in South Burlington

The hardwood floors were gleaming, and the heavily insulated walls were painted a fresh white. The townhouse at 14 Lily Lane in South Burlington was in cream puff shape — and for a reason. It's going up for sale this spring.

Just a few years ago, the house and six others in the small development off Kirby Road were slated for demolition. At the time, Burlington International Airport officials planned to raze the homes after purchasing them for about $2 million with Federal Aviation Administration grant money in 2016 and 2017. The townhouses, like many homes in the neighborhood that did get demolished, were deemed uninhabitable under federal noise standards.

But times — and noise levels — have changed. While the recently arrived F-35 fighter jets based at the airfield are louder than the retired F-16s, the so-called Kirby Cottages have been spared. Officials are cheering the homes' preservation, as are housing advocates.

The reversal, and recently altered plans for an airport hotel, highlight the unique role that the Queen City plays as airport owner in a neighboring municipality. Governance of the airfield has been the subject of a long-simmering dispute between Burlington and host South Burlington; in recent years, Winooski has also joined the fray.

The Onion City, the municipality hardest hit by noise from the F-35s, wants a representative on the Airport Commission. Four Burlington residents and one from South Burlington currently sit on the board, which has an oversight role in some airport operations.

"It's important to create a formal connection to ensure we're at the table in the future, when the City of Burlington is applying for FAA funding annually and implementing noise compatibility programming for the next 10 to 20 years, or discussing other impacts the airport could bring to our community as we live and work under the path of every aircraft," Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott wrote in an email to Seven Days. "A commission seat will ensure our voice is included in the discussion no matter who else is at that table."

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger supports adding Winooski to the Airport Commission. But he's steadfast in his belief that his city should remain the sole operator of BTV.

In January, Burlington released a study that offers a "definitive record on a whole range of critical airport issues," Weinberger said. "From my perspective, it puts to bed once and for all the notion that somehow, there's something wrong with the airport structure. There is really no compelling need to make the change."

That's preposterous to South Burlington City Councilor Tom Chittenden, who has long argued for regional governance of the airport. He called the report "very biased."

"This was done by the City of Burlington. What I was calling for, and still call for, is a third party, the state, conducting a study, an analysis," Chittenden said. "This is Burlington, who has vested interests."

Debate about how the airport operates goes back almost to its beginnings in 1919, when a group of Burlington leaders leased a 72-acre cornfield in neighboring South Burlington. The Burlington Streets Department used a horse-drawn grader to smooth out a runway, and the first plane landed in 1920. This summer, the airport will celebrate its 100th birthday with an airplane display and other events.

Travel jitters in response to COVID-19, more commonly called the coronavirus, could dent passenger traffic this month, but in recent years it has boomed. Last year it hit 1.38 million. The airport's total value is $1.04 billion, according to the report by Burlington City Attorney Eileen Blackwood.

The 40-page study details the city's investment in the property, from clearing trees to building terminals to gradually acquiring more and more acreage. It also documents how state and federal funding helped with the airport's development and, in more recent decades, how ticket surcharges have funded the operation.

The report notes various ups and downs, including a bid in 1984 by then-mayor Bernie Sanders to take $200,000 from airport coffers for general expenses of the city. The Airport Commission unanimously voted to give $300,000, according to the report, but then-governor Richard Snelling and the FAA threatened to cut off state and federal funding, citing a rule that airport-generated revenue could only be used for airport-related costs. In frustration, "Mayor Sanders offered to sell the Airport for $10 million, but there were no takers," the report states.

The study urges a continuation of the status quo and concludes that the airport "has a century-long record of success and growth and is currently thriving under strong management."

Even compromises have gotten pushback. The idea of adding Winooski to the Airport Commission is a definite "no" for Bill Keogh, a Burlington resident who sits on the board. He thinks the Onion City should pay up if it wants a say in things.

"Winooski wants to watch the movie but doesn't want to buy a ticket," he said.

The mayor envisions adding one seat for Winooski and another for Burlington, for a total of seven commissioners. He can push the issue forward without the commission's backing, though it would need city council approval and a "yes" vote from Burlington residents. The Vermont legislature would then have to approve the change, a process that could take more than a year.

Even with a seat, it's unclear how much sway Winooski would hold on airport decision making. South Burlington, which has had a commission seat since 1973, has watched for decades as Burlington used FAA money to buy out its residents in homes near the airport. Burlington makes payments in lieu of taxes to South Burlington and must abide by its neighbor's land-use regulations, but it has few other obligations to its host city.

Rosanne Greco, an activist opposed to the F-35s and a former chair of the South Burlington City Council, is "thrilled" the Lily Lane homes won't be torn down. But she questions the logic behind the decision.

"Why now? Why didn't they stop 50 houses ago, or 75 houses ago, or 200 houses ago?" Greco asked. She believes there's another explanation: "It was all about land for the developers.''

There's been some building on the cleared land where houses once stood, and there could be more. Developers had hoped to build a hotel on airport property south of the parking garage, but the FAA recently determined that the building's height would impede flight radar operations. Burlington has now proposed the hotel for the north side of the garage and, pending approval from the South Burlington Development Review Board, it will go up on land where nine homes were torn down in the 1990s.

Gene Richards at the Kirby Cottages in South Burlington - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Gene Richards at the Kirby Cottages in South Burlington

"For years, it's been a parking lot," said airport aviation director Gene Richards. "For us to use part of that parking lot for a hotel, it fits."

Burlington will need to make decisions about the rest of the property it now owns to the west. There, entire streets of houses have been torn down, and the area today resembles parkland.

The land is currently zoned residential but, in the longer term, airport officials envision a new road and commercial development. That would require a zoning change, however, and the full cooperation of South Burlington, according to Richards and Mayor Weinberger.

"I do think it would make sense for there to be some commercial development on some of those properties, but we really are looking to South Burlington to take the lead," Weinberger said.

More immediately, the airport must deal with the Lily Lane townhouses, which Richards hopes to sell for about $300,000 each. All proceeds from the sale must go back to the FAA, according to Nic Longo, BTV's deputy director of aviation.

Richards' goal is to sell them by May 15.

"This is the outcome I was seeking," Weinberger said. "I think it's now very likely that these homes will be ... relatively affordable homes for Chittenden County residents for generations to come.''

The sale should also signal Weinberger's goal, he said, to "bring an end to the home purchase and demolition program" around the airport.

South Burlington City Councilor Meaghan Emery lives in the Chamberlin neighborhood near the airport and has opposed many of the teardowns.

"I can certainly say I'm glad that they are putting the homes on the market," she said. "They are beautiful; they are efficient; they serve residents; they are almost brand new."

The ever-changing airport plans make life challenging for people who live nearby, said retired photographer Jonathan Hart, who was among those who sold their Lily Lane properties four years ago.

"It's very disruptive for the neighborhood," he said recently. "It's very disruptive for the people who don't know when they are coming or going. It's just a very upsetting environment."

After a Seven Days reporter told him that the properties had been spared the wrecking ball and were going back on the market, Hart said that was good news. But he said he and his partner, who moved to a carriage house in Charlotte, wouldn't dream of moving back to Lily Lane with the changing noise maps, evolving policies and general uncertainty about what might happen in the future to properties near the airport.

"We saw the opportunity to scram, and we did," he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Homes Preserved | Decision to raze airport townhouses reversed"

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