People & Places

South Burlington nixes airport expansion request

A commercial passenger jet lands at the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington in August 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For the first time in years, a group of South Burlington residents in opposition to airport expansion said they feel they are being heard.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, South Burlington officials killed the airport’s chances of growing into the Chamberlin neighborhood.

“I’m very pleased with it because the airport has done some really negative things in the oldest neighborhood of South Burlington,” said Carmine Sargent, who has been living within earshot of the airport since 1972.

“I feel I am finally being heard and that the city’s planning and zoning boards are listening and calling a halt on the airport encroaching into our lives,” she said.

Paul Conner, South Burlington’s director of planning and zoning, told VTDigger that the commission’s vote reflects the recommendation of a task force that spent months reviewing the airport’s rezoning request. The task force submitted its unanimous recommendation to deny the proposal on April 28, and the planning commission received the report this week.

The task force concluded that looking at one piece of the puzzle instead of the whole area was premature, Conner said. It found that the rezoning request “wouldn’t advance the broad goals of having a good transition between the airport and the neighborhood,” he said.

Residents told VTDigger they were pleasantly surprised to hear from Nic Longo, acting director of aviation at Burlington International Airport, at Tuesday's meeting, on his willingness to work with the community.

“I think that speaks to the fact that there were so many people from the neighborhood and the community involved (that) he could see that this wasn’t going to fly,” said Kim Robison, who has lived in the Chamberlin neighborhood for 35 years.

Longo did not respond to requests for comment Thursday afternoon.

The Burlington International Airport submitted the request about a year ago to rezone an 11-acre parcel on the west side of the airport, next to the Chamberlin neighborhood, from residential to “something that would allow for airport uses, including a maintenance facility,” Conner said.

The airport already owned about 8 acres. The parcel previously included homes, which have been removed in the past through sound mitigation programs, Conner said. 

The commission set up the seven-person airport rezoning task force to examine the request last year. It included members from various city committees and residents from the neighborhood — Sargent and Robison were co-chairs — and worked with a consultant to review options and host public forums.

The final report notes that the requested rezoning would be at odds with the city’s 2016 master plan, would not further the purposes of its land use regulations and would be incompatible with the residential uses in the Chamberlin neighborhood.

A former City Council member, Paul Engels told VTDigger that four of the task force members were from the Chamberlin neighborhood and “feel really strongly about this.”

“They participate in various planning activities that the airport does, studies and things, and they just feel like they’ve always been used for window dressing,” he said.

The feelings go back decades to when the airport acquired adjacent property and homes were torn down for its expansion, he said.

The Chamberlin neighborhood is considered unusual by residents. It has a school, is central and walkable, close to parks and greenspace and is “home to some of the most affordable housing in the city,” the report states, as noted by Meaghan Emery, City Council vice-chair who served on the task force, at Tuesday’s planning commission meeting.

Called an original “missing middle” neighborhood with a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, small apartment buildings and condominiums, it’s a neighborhood that draws new residents and  where the real estate and rental markets are strong, according to the report.

“Given the severe housing crisis in the region, it is critical that the remaining housing and quality of life in the neighborhood be preserved. The character, convenience, choice and affordability available in the Chamberlin neighborhood is not something that can be readily replaced with housing elsewhere in the city,” the report states.

Planning commission members also indicated that they would include the recommendations from the report into the city’s next master plan.

That’s hopeful news for Sargent, who has participated in countless studies, meetings and master plans over the years and has even faced arrest for protesting bringing F-35s into the neighborhood. 

The latest vote and the airport officials’ seeming willingness to work with the neighborhood could well be a new beginning in a decades-long contentious relationship, she said.

“My hope is this will help the city government take better care of the residents of our neighborhood and keep the airport from doing further damage,” she said.

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Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Email: [email protected]

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