The federal government is quietly carrying out the slow-motion destruction of a large swath of a South Burlington neighborhood. More than 100 homes and a few commercial buildings have been razed in the past 15 years in response to higher levels of noise pollution from the much-expanded Burlington International Airport. Ten more houses are earmarked for elimination this year, and plans call for another 40 to be flattened in the following two years.
But this isn’t a story of Washington villainy and arrogance, like the “urban renewal” project more than 40 years ago that razed the Italian section of Burlington along the Battery Street corridor. In every instance this time, property owners have voluntarily signed the death warrants for their residences or businesses, some of them eagerly. And several additional residents outside the targeted area wish their homes, too, could fall to the federal scythe.
But like the forced dislocations of yesteryear, the slow dismantling of the airport neighborhood can only be described as unsettling. As the landscape changes and many residents exit, some of those who remain can’t help feeling anxious and sad. Such sentiments have been expressed at “very emotional” hearings, according to Brad Worthen, the airport’s community liason officer.
All the structures already wrecked or targeted for demolition lie in a band to the east of a snaking line that follows the boundaries of Burlington International Airport, from close to Williston Road in the south to just beyond Kirby Road in the north. The Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the decibel output from airport operations exceeds acceptable levels inside this roughly 50-acre residential zone. The FAA has thus been offering to buy properties within the zone at fair-market prices, to cover the owners’ relocation expenses and to then tear down the homes or buildings. It’s all part of a long-range plan that could involve the reconfiguring of airport access roads. In the shorter term, officials intend to create a landscaped buffer between the project area and the parts of the neighborhood that remain intact.
Inside the zone, “About half of the homeowners can’t wait to sell; the other half don’t appear interested at this point,” says South Burlington City Council Chairman Mark Boucher.
The FAA never solicits home sales, adds Brad Worthen, the airport’s community liaison officer. “It’s entirely voluntary,” he says. “Anybody who doesn’t want to sell their home doesn’t have to.”
But in this economy, having “a willing buyer,” as Worthen describes the FAA, presents an unusual opportunity to sellers. Unlike private, individual buyers, the feds don’t have to sell a house or get approved for a mortgage before they can sign on the dotted line. “If a price is agreed upon,” Worthen explains, “the FAA will buy the house.”
Sales prices are set by independent appraisers, Worthen adds. If a potential seller doesn’t like the initial estimate, he or she can get another independent appraiser to weigh in. The program has budgeted about $2.5 million to cover the purchase prices and moving expenses for 10 homes this year.
But how does anyone calculate the loss of 200 or more houses along Airport Drive, Dumont Avenue, Hanover Street and Airport Parkway in a county desperate for affordable housing? The mostly modest homes on small lots are about 50 years old, built at a time when the airport consisted of little more than a small, sleepy terminal and a couple of runways. Back then, residential developers were building on disused farm land, much of it owned by the University of Vermont. Many roads in the vicinity of the airport were unpaved.
Today, the vastly expanded airport, known to aviation officials as BTV, handles hundreds of commercial and military flights daily, generating far more noise than those original homebuyers could have imagined.
“It’s a tough situation with a commercial enterprise of that size and scale and economic importance to Vermont lying within a residential neighborhood,” Boucher says. South Burlington Planning Director Paul Conner agrees, adding, “It’s very difficult for those in the noise-impacted zone. Many of them have been there a long time.”
There’s a fear that some homes whose owners refuse to sell could end up as forlorn islands surrounded by empty lots. But South Burlington lacks the authority to stop the FAA from acquiring and tearing down homes in the designated area. The suburban municipality also has almost no control over the airport itself, which is owned by the < ahref="http://www.ci.burlington.vt.us/">City of Burlington and overseen by a five-member commission consisting of four representatives from Burlington and one from South Burlington. Conner says, however, that he and other local officials are working with airport authorities to ensure that homes beyond the boundaries of the potential demolition zone will continue to constitute “a viable neighborhood.”
George Maille, an IBM “solutions architect,” has lived with his family for the past 31 years in a home on Logwood Street, about 75 yards west of the main airport entrance. Maille’s home is barely outside the designated noise-impact area, but he complains that the sounds from revving jet engines and other BTV operations have grown much louder inside his house since two homes on Airport Drive, just beyond his backyard, were demolished about six months ago. Those two-story structures, which served to muffle airport noise, were knocked down as part of the FAA’s “home-acquisition program.”
Maille has also run a recording business in his basement for the past 12 years, engineering albums for local groups such as Friday’s Angst and Jericho Road Crew. He says he has had to curtail this second career because of increased airport noise. “The house shakes sometimes when those JetBlue planes fire up,” Maille says, pointing at the parked aircraft from his back porch. His 21-year-old son Matthew adds that a throbbing noise from the airport was so insistent one night in January that he awoke at 2 a.m. and inserted earplugs.
Maille wants the noise zone’s boundaries to be redrawn so they encompass his home, which he says he would then sell to the FAA. Most of his neighbors on Logwood Street feel the same, he adds.
But not Yvette Duhamel, an older woman who has lived a few doors from the Mailles for the past 35 years. “The noise isn’t a problem for me,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to move. It’s a very convenient location. You have it all here.”
Airport noise also doesn’t bother Laura Robertson, who was working last Saturday at Airport Grocery. “You get used to it,” she says. This 50-year-old store, also known as Gino’s for its original owner Gino Todisco (Robertson’s father), sits directly across from the BTV parking garage on Airport Drive and is eligible for an FAA buyout. Indeed, two properties adjoining Gino’s now lie vacant, demolished as part of the program.
Todisco isn’t sure whether he’ll sell the store, his daughter says. But he’s nearing retirement and the buyout might serve as “a nice ending,” she adds.
Not far away on Elizabeth Street, Svetlana Olteanu has a for-sale sign posted on the front lawn of a house eligible for FAA purchase. Olteanu says she hears almost no noise from the airport and wants to test her $279,000 asking price on the open market before considering whatever the FAA might offer.
Even as he marshals evidence of the degree of noise pollution afflicting his home, Maille is simultaneously pressing officials to agree to more thorough testing of an experimental section of a “living wall” they plan to build between Maille’s backyard and Airport Drive. This 12-foot-tall sound buffer consisting of earth and plantings is envisioned as ultimately running most of the length of the noise-impact zone. Uses have not been determined for the cleared area itself, airport officials say, but any nonresidential construction could not occur without permission from South Burlington as part of a rezoning process, Planning Director Connor says.
Airport-related documents posted on a City of South Burlington website indicate, however, that there are nascent plans for relocating Airport Drive and Airport Parkway and expanding them into four-lane roads. A brief “Economic Development Opportunities” section in one of the documents refers without elaboration to “potential hotel operation” and “office, retail and commercial uses.”
Exactly when — and whether — those changes happen will probably be determined by a seemingly contrary combination of market forces and community will.