Obstructions to Wiscasset Municipal Airport’s flight path from trees growing in the Chewonki Campground was an issue that could have easily been resolved decades ago, former airport manager Ervin Deck previously said. Now it is the center of an emotional conflict between the campground and the airport with supporters of both organizations agreeing the solution will not be easy.
Wiscasset selectmen heard from both sides of the fence at their Tuesday, Oct. 20 meeting as they considered a contract to enable Stantec, an engineering consultancy firm, to negotiate easements with abutting property owners to address safety hazards identified in the airport’s master plan.
After more than hour of debate, with several people speaking on behalf of the airport and the campground, selectmen approved the scope of work presented by Stantec’s Janice Bland, authorizing Stantec to enter into easement negotiations in a 3-1 vote.
Each selectman expressed dismay at the difficult decision they were faced with. They noted, however, that easement negotiations were only a first step in the process and placed power in the hands of the private property owners to negotiate terms of an easement that would benefit them.
The easements are a necessary step for the airport to address safety hazards identified by the Federal Aviation Administration in its master plan and secure federal funding to repave its runway – a project critical to the airport’s future.
For Chewonki Campground owners and sisters Pam Brackett and Ann Beck, the easement will not only affect their livelihood, but also their family’s heritage.
Trees growing on the properties of three abutters are obstructions to the airport’s protected airspace. An easement on those properties must be negotiated to clear the obstructions before the deadline to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration grant to repave the runway.
The deadline for the grant is May 1, 2016 for the portion of the runway affecting two property owners not in attendance at the meeting. Stantec has until May 1, 2017 to secure an easement on the campground.
In the airport’s master plan, the safety hazards identified from the campground were not limited to trees growing into the airport’s protected airspace. The location of campsites in an area designated the runway protection zone, or crash zone in military terminology, was also listed as a safety hazard.
The scope of work presented by Stantec included negotiations to address the location of those campsites. Brackett was brought to the verge of tears when stating her objections to the relocation of nearly half the campsites at Chewonki Campground.
According to Stantec’s scope of work, a landscape architect will be contracted to develop an alternative design for the layout of approximately 18 impacted campsites. Brackett expressed anger and frustration over the language of the contract, which seemed to imply the town and Stantec would have the authority to determine the design of a business she inherited from her parents when she was 18 years old.
Property owners have power in easement negotiations, selectmen said, and Brackett could turn negotiations over the relocation of campsites into a benefit for the campground. Brackett’s daughter and future owner of the campground, Phaelon O’Donnell, expressed concern they would be “steamrolled” in negotiations and Wiscasset would lose its only campground.
According to Bland, the location of the campsites in the runway protection zone will not necessarily threaten the ability of the airport to secure federal funding. The need for the campsites’ relocation is not definite, Bland said.
The obstruction caused by the campground’s trees poses a serious safety hazard, Bland said, and needs to be addressed. “The writing’s on the wall,” Selectman Judy Flanagan said. “We’re at a point where we need to go forward with this.”
“If we vote for this, I guess we should just cross our fingers and hope for the best,” Chair Ben Rines said. With minor amendments clarifying language in the scope of work, it was approved in a 3-1 vote, with Rines opposed.
If easement negotiations fail, Stantec will return to the town and selectmen will be forced to decide whether to obtain easements through eminent domain, or allow the airport runway to fall into disrepair, become inoperable, and risk the FAA asking the town to return previous funding it provided, according to airport officials.