Airport plan upsets Northfield councilors

Posted May 01, 2009, at 6:27 p.m.

NORTHFIELD, Maine — Selectmen in this Washington County town claim they are “stunned,” “dismayed” and “outraged” that their town has been picked as the top choice for a regional airport in the Machias area.

In a prepared statement sent out Friday by Northfield selectmen, they claimed they were not included during the review process that resulted in a parcel of land that straddles the Northfield-Marshfield boundary being picked as the preferred site for a regional airport. They claimed the consultant’s report that named the parcel as the preferred site suggests that Northfield officials had been involved, agreed with the proposed location, and knew of no potential conflicts with the town’s land-use ordinances.

“None of that is true,” the selectmen wrote in the release.

They also claim Northfield residents found out about the selection of the site in an article in a local weekly newspaper.

Machias Town Manager Betsy Fitzgerald has been spearheading the site review process. She said Friday that, starting two years ago, she sent notices to the town of Northfield, encouraging it to send someone to attend the advisory committee meetings, but that as far as she knew no one from the town ever showed up. She said the person she dealt with in assessing the site for a potential airport was the landowner.

“I did not know that I needed to [talk directly with Northfield officials],” she said.

Fitzgerald said that some of the information the Northfield selectmen included in their statement Friday is inaccurate. The airport runway, if sited in Northfield, likely will not have to be 5,000 feet long, she said.

Also, the cost for acquiring and building an airport at the fairgrounds site in Jonesboro would have been between $10 million and $12 million, not $24 million, she said. The committee has since decided against pursuing the fairgrounds site in Jonesboro, in part because of strong opposition from Jonesboro residents.

Fitzgerald said she wishes Northfield officials had contacted her directly to express their concerns, rather than sending her a letter and making public announcements. She said that, going forward, she hopes the advisory committee can talk directly to Northfield officials to make sure the relevant decision-makers have the same set of facts.

“I’m disappointed the town of Northfield has chosen this route,” she said. “If they had a concern, I’m not hard to find.”

Northfield Selectman Richard Lamasney said Friday that he attended a few committee meetings when Jonesboro was being considered as the preferred site but has not attended meetings since it fell out of favor. He said he and his fellow selectmen have a lot of legitimate reasons not to want an airport built in their town.

“Airports are notoriously dirty environmentally,” he said. “We’ve been trying to protect the quality of life [in Northfield].”

Lamasney said Northfield benefits economically from people who come to town to enjoy the outdoors, in the woods and on the area’s lakes and rivers. He expressed doubt that an airport would provide economic benefits to the town.

“It would benefit [only] a handful of people,” he said. “We live here because we have clean air and clean water, things that a lot of other places don’t have.”

The reason a committee of area officials has been looking at potential sites for a new airport near Machias is that the existing airport in Machias, which is wedged between Route 1 and the Machias River, is too small to accommodate larger business-class jets, Fitzgerald has said. A larger airport, she and other supporters have reasoned, could help boost economic development in the Machias area.

Both Fitzgerald and Lamasney said they plan to attend a public hearing about the proposed Northfield airport site. The hearing is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 12, in Room 102 of the Science Building at University of Maine at Machias.

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