Airport Commission Votes Plan, Allowing for Possibility of a Jail

By JONATHAN BURKE

After first voting unanimously to leave the door open for the possibility of a jail on airport land, the airport commissioners this week approved the master plan.

A few of the dozen people in attendance at Wednesday night's meeting had wanted more. They argued that the airport commission owed the public more than three weeks time to review a document three years in the making.

"I've got some reservations about the plan. . . . It looks to me like it's trying to take a small community airport and turn it into a large regional airport," said Nelson Smith, Dukes county commissioner-elect. "I, like other members of the public, would like to have more time to look at it."

Mr. Smith said the plan was creating a blueprint for future airport planning on the basis of "large corporate jets" when it should be "looking at the commuter lines."

In later comments to the Gazette, he said, "I understand there have been meetings held in terms of requesting public input over the years, but I think the public needs an opportunity to comment on the finished project."

"I don't understand what the rush is to get it adopted today," said county commissioner Lenny Jason at the meeting. "If it's taken three years to get to this, at least you can have a few public meetings."

Most county commissioners echoed those sentiments. Robert Sawyer, county commissioner, said early this week: "It is my profound conviction that something as important to this community as the master plan should have a very deliberate public process."

He rejected any notion that the county commissioners, who appoint the airport board, are meddling. "Last time I looked, the county was the only regional government that this Island has. Anything of a regional nature is the proper purview of the county commissioners," he said.

Dan Flynn was the sole county commissioner to endorse the public process as it has played out around the airport master plan. He said he had been a member of the airport commission's advisory committee and that there had been ample opportunity for public comment.

"The master plan is a master plan that is fluid. It moves. It's not structured, but it allows the FAA and MAC [Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission] to plan grant planning," said the commissioner who is also the federal security screener at the airport.

But more controversial than the lack of public process was the the master plan's failure to provide for a jail on airport land.

Michael McCormack, Dukes County sheriff, was unrelenting in his request that the commissioners delay their vote to give him time to generate public support for a jail on airport land. He said to approve the plan as it stood would send a message to the FAA, which must approve the plan, that the local community does not support a jail at the airport.

Besides, he said, the airport commissioners had previously told him that they would take the time to consider his request. He said he had been told at an Oct. 2 meeting that the commissioners wanted to wait to see the master plan before actively considering a jail. Now that the plan is available, he said, the commissioners should consider the jail.

"I'm asking you once again to keep your word of Oct. 2," he said more than once during the two-hour discussion.

He said a procedure was laid out in the plan which allowed airport land to be used for municipal purposes.

"As I read the master plan, there was in chapter five a mechanism . . . to petition the FAA to use the property for non-aeronautical purposes. What I am asking you for is some time to get the support of the local government for this mechanism in chapter five," said the Sheriff.

Mr. McCormack ran into resistance from Marc Villa, chairman of the airport commission. Mr. Villa said he had purposely tried to keep the jail out of the discussion. He said it is clear in the master plan that the FAA will not support the use of airport land for a jail.

"What the FAA is strongly pointing out is their lack of willingness to part with land for a municipal purpose," said Mr. Villa. He said the FAA does not like to part with land on an indefinite basis. The jail differs from the business park, he said, because the business park land is leased. Property given for a jail would be lost forever, he said.

But the sheriff persisted, and he had the support of a number of other officials present. From the beginning of the master plan process, he said, openness has been lacking.

"Not once was I ever told that there may be a possibility that there may be a recommendation against municipal use [for any of the airport land]," said Sheriff McCormack. "At what point in time do we have an opportunity through the commissioners to let the FAA know how we'd like to use the property?"

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jason said further consideration should be given to the jail concept. Leslie Leland, county chairman, reminded the airport board of the Oct. 2 conversation in which they told the sheriff they would reopen the dialogue once they received the preliminary report.

In the end, a compromise of sorts was worked out. The commissioners took the most controversial component of the airport plan - its failure to include a provision for a jail on airport land - and said they would reconsider.

They approved a motion by George Balco to review further the possibility of using airport land for a new jail and a motion by Tim Carroll to swap 20 acres of unusable airport land for six acres of developable state land. The master plan was also approved by unanimous vote.

Released Nov. 20, the master plan is the airport commission's vision for the future. It covers 22 capital projects that range from wider and longer runways to retail shopping. It is the blueprint the airport will use when requesting grants from the FAA.

"What it primarily is is a picture of where we are today and what it consists of, and then it lays out a basic road map of what [the state] and our staff and the commissioners see for the future of the airport land," said Marc Villa.

Following its release, the towns of Aquinnah, West Tisbury, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, in addition to the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Vineyard Transit Authority advisory board, the county and the Steamship Authority formally asked the airport board to allow more time for public review of the plan, which contains hundreds of pages.

This week, the Edgartown planning board wrote, "With respect to the Summer Work Force Housing Dormitory Issue, we feel your master plan falls short in addressing the greatest Island need with respect to the housing crisis we all know exists, and is getting worse, not better, as the years go by."

It is not clear at this point how fluid the master plan really is. During the meeting, Mr. Villa said it was a live document and that "nothing is etched in stone." Airport manager Bill Weibrecht said any action on the specific projects in the master plan will still be subject to further public review.

And, according to Jim Peters, FAA spokesman, the plan is subject to modification. Many airports, he said, changed their master plans following 9/11.

On Jan. 1, the terms of three airport commissioners will expire and there will be one additional vacancy to fill. The county commissioners will appoint or reappoint people to those spots. Mr. Peters said the new airport commission would be free to make changes.