GREAT BARRINGTON — Armed with lawyers and test results at a packed meeting, both sides in the escalating airport drama recalibrated Monday after the airport's owners changed their strategy to build three hangars at Walter J. Koladza Airport.
Attorney Lori Robbins told the town Select Board that Berkshire Aviation would withdraw its special permit application for permission to build in its residential/agricultural location, and instead file a permit application with the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Because the airport began operating before zoning regulations hit the books, it is known as a pre-existing, non-conforming entity. While it can always be an airport, it must have town permission to build anything new on the 93-acre property.
But at five charged public hearings, some airport neighbors objected to the 147-by-150-foot hangars on a number of grounds, then complained of the noise and potential safety hazards from the small country airport.
Soon the objections took a hard turn as two nearby wells revealed lead concentrations well above the US Environmental Protection Agency action level. Fingers pointed to the airport, raising the issue of leaded aviation gas, which many small aircraft still require and which the airport sells.
Yet just last week Kenneth Krentsa, Koladza's manager, released test results showing what the EPA considers very low lead concentrations in the airport's own well and faucet water.
And on Monday, Krentsa told the board that eight soil samples - taken from around the airport perimeter and at both ends of the runway - came up with "insignificant" lead levels. The samples were taken at a depth of between 0-8 inches, according to a report from EST Associates in Needham, an environmental consulting firm.
Those soil results, obtained by The Eagle, ranged from 12.3 parts per million in a sample near Route 71 between the airport office and a private home, and 21.7 ppm from a combined sample from both sides of the runway end at Seekonk Cross Road.
The EPA says naturally occurring lead in soil can range between 50 and 400 ppm. If soil where children play has 400 ppm lead concentrations, the EPA requires remediation, for instance.
The website of the UMassAmherst Center for Agriculture Food and the Environment says 400 ppm and below is a low level of lead in garden soil.
Later Krentsa told The Eagle that either side on both ends of the runway were chosen for sampling since that's where the aircraft "run-ups" are just before take off.
"Those areas have the most concentration of exhaust," Krentsa explained.
But while Krentsa turns to the ZBA to build hangars he says will protect aircraft and generate revenue, airport neighbors made it clear the lead issue will follow both Berkshire Aviation and the board.
"It's not that you can just walk away now," said Cheryl Lein. "It's not just the ZBA's role to take care of that."
Lein went on to cite a state Department of Environmental Protection report that lists the airport as one of a number of threats in that area to the aquifer, the town's drinking water recharge source. She said the town is responsible for taking care of the aquifer no matter what happens here.
But going to the ZBA for approval may give the board less control over what happens at the airport in future, said Sean Stanton, board chairman. The board had been looking at a number of conditions to attach to the special permit, like selling an unleaded fuel and limiting expansion.
"This is not the direction I wanted to go," he said.
And Richard Dohoney, the attorney for airport neighbors Marc Fasteau and Anne Fredericks said he had a "strong objection" to allowing this withdrawal. He said it put the community and the town through too long and expensive a process, particularly for some, "who had to hire overly priced lawyers to deal with all this."
While there were plenty of chuckles in the room at this, Dohoney continued on a stern path.
"There is a reason the Legislature put in a two-year ban on re-submissions [of permit applications]," he said. "It's to prevent exactly what happened here. It's an abuse of the process by big businesses like the airport who can come in and wear down the community, wear down the staff ..."
That two-year ban, however, only applies if a special permit is denied or if the withdrawal is accepted by the board "with prejudice."
Robbins told The Eagle while a pre-existing, non-conforming entity is allowed to grow, "it is a gray area as to when a business needs a special permit to expand."
Robbins also hinted that one standard the ZBA has to apply to the hangars might make it easier for that board to rule in the airport's favor. That is, if building them is not "substantially detrimental to the neighborhood" from what is already there. She said the hangars would only improve things.
"Those airplanes are now tethered to the ground," she said, referring to concerns over leaking fluids. "It's better to have them in the hangars."
But Dohoney told the board it should take a vote to have the state Department of Environmental Protection investigate the airport for lead.
"You owe it to the town," he said.
Christine Hatch, an assistant professor of hydrogeology at UMassAmherst said while she couldn't speak to the specifics of this issue and all its variables, data over time helps find the smoking gun in such an instance.
"What makes it possible to really know whether activity at the airport [is the cause] is to have before and after data, and water data that go back far enough," she said.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871