MACHIAS, Maine — Of the more than 60 people who attended a public hearing Tuesday night at the university campus, none submitted comments supporting a proposal to build a new airport seven miles north of town off Route 192.
Those who spoke publicly at the meeting, which was held at the science building of University of Maine at Machias, made it clear that they are skeptical about the benefits such a facility would have for the majority of year-round residents in the area.
Many of those who attended the hearing, which was held by the Federal Aviation Administration, were from Northfield and Marshfield, where the airport would be located. Consultants working with the FAA and the town of Machias, which is interested in finding a larger, better site for its current airport, have indicated that a parcel of land off Diamond Match Road that straddles the boundary between the two towns is the best option of more than 15 sites within a half-hour drive of Machias that were considered.
Northfield resident Lori Cole, however, disagrees with the choice. Reading from a prepared statement, Cole critiqued the accuracy and clarity of the consultant’s report. She said the facility would pose an “inordinate” financial risk to Northfield’s 150 or so residents, and suggested the project in general would be too expensive and too risky.
Decrying federally funded pork projects that have little benefit for average citizens, Cole said the $10 million airport would be Washington County’s own “bridge to nowhere.”
People in attendance at the hearing applauded after Cole finished her remarks.
Other Northfield and Marshfield residents expressed concerns about the environmental effects the airport would have and about who would have the final say in whether it gets built.
It was not only people from the two towns where the airport would be built who questioned the wisdom of pursuing the project. Barbara Drisko from Columbia Falls said that, though the airport might attract more people from outside Washington County, she had concerns about whether the airport would create economic opportunities for local, year-round residents.
Joel Pratt of Roque Bluffs cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the figures used in some reports about the demand for better aviation services in the area. One projection that indicated Machias could have as much as one-third of the annual air traffic at Bangor International Airport, he said, was “highly suspect.” He said that even one assessment that indicated this would be at the high end of Machias’ potential was improbable.
“High end, my foot,” Pratt said. “Hot air, that’s what it is.”
Ralph Nicosia-Rusin of the FAA, who chaired the hearing, said the federal agency has guidelines to avoid siting any federally funded airport within an hour’s drive of another FAA airport. It is ultimately up to local entities to decide whether to go ahead with building such an airport, he said.
Nicosia-Rusin said that what kind of local entity has the final say is not determined by federal law and likely is determined by state law. He said he did not know in this case whether it would be one town, more than one town or the county.
One of the ideas behind a new airport is encouraging economic development, according to Nicosia-Rusin. He said that though a new facility might generate only five flights a day, those few flights still might provide good economic benefits to the area.
“Distance is your enemy in terms of bringing the world’s market to your door,” he said. “We’re not making any representation that there’s going to be a huge boom [in economic or aviation activity].”
Nicosia-Rusin said that, if the airport is built and the Machias area grows, the airport theoretically could be expanded, if it gets the proper approvals.
“Some people would see that as a blessing, others would see it as a curse,” Nicosia-Rusin said. “I’m not making that call.”
Betsy Fitzgerald, Machias’ town manager, attended the meeting but did not speak during the public hearing. She said after the meeting that she is confident that there are people in the area who support the proposal who will submit their comments to the FAA in writing.
Fitzgerald stressed that the preliminary site selection and the public hearing are just steps in the process, which could take another five years before anything is built. It is important to let that process play out before deciding how it is going to end up, she said.
Fitzgerald reiterated her view that a new, larger airport in or near Machias could help provide economic benefits to the area.
“We’re sitting on a fence,” she said. “We have opportunity on one side, or we can fall off the other side and have the same old same old.”