Biddeford’s tough choice: Should town airport be expanded, stay the same or close forever?

Posted Jan. 28, 2013, at 4:49 p.m.

BIDDEFORD, Maine — During Mayor Alan Casavant’s tenure, two long-term controversial issues have been resolved: The Maine Energy Recovery Company waste-to-energy incinerator has closed and will be decommissioned in the coming months and a curbside pick-up recycling program is set to take effect July 1.

On Tuesday, Casavant and the city council will discuss a third issue that has been a bone of contention for years: The Biddeford Municipal Airport.

Tuesday’s council discussion will take place during a workshop, during which councilors learn about an issue and hear from experts and ask them questions. No action is taken during workshops, and the public is typically not allowed to weigh in.

The workshop was scheduled, said Casavant, because “the airport has been in limbo the last four to six years.

“There is pent up resentment that goes back decades,” he said.

Casavant said he doesn’t want to “rehash the past,” but rather, “start at ground zero” and learn “what the needs are and where we have to go from here.”

While past administrations have had long debates about the airport, with many members of the public voicing opinions, there has been little discussion about the airport under Casavant’s watch.

Twice when a proposal to hire a consultant to devise a plan for airport improvements was placed on the council agenda, the item was tabled and remained so. No action was taken.

For several years, requests for funds to purchase land to conduct airport maintenance were denied. Over time, various groups have weighed in on the issue; some would like to see it expand to attract business, some want it to remain a recreational airport, but maintained to Federal Aviation Administration standards. Some don’t want any changes at the site, and others would like to see it close.

The issue came to a head in 2006, during Mayor Wallace Nutting’s term, when trees were cut along the airport perimeter. The action was done to comply with FAA safety standards, said Airport Manager Tom Bryand.

Although the Public Works Department used to perform the same service without complaint, he said, there was an uproar among some of the residential abutters of the airport who said they were impacted and objected to the work.

In 2007, an airport committee was disbanded and has never been reconvened.

Under Mayor Joanne Twomey’s administration, Casavant’s immediate predecessor, much discussion regarding the airport took place. Throughout that period, airport opponents were mostly successful in stalling improvements at the site. One significant action that was taken, however, was to install a storm water mitigation system.

According to Bryand, there is much more to be done to comply with FAA safety standards. Some of these items include: More tree cutting, installing fencing along the airport perimeter, resurfacing the runway, making repairs at either end of the runway and installing lights.

Some of the problems are political, said Bryand. He said he believes one reason the council has refused to take action on hiring a consultant is because a city committee recommended hiring Stantech Engineering.

Stantech Consulting Services was involved in the tree-cutting effort and many have voiced opposition to having them do more work in Biddeford. However, said Bryand, Stantech is one of the biggest and best transportation engineering firms in the nation.

If the airport is to remain, it must be maintained, said Casavant. He also wondered whether it could be used as an economic development tool.

“I don’t have any preconceived plans” about what to do at the airport, he added. “I think this can be better utilized, but I don’t know that.”

Before any action is taken, said Casavant, there will be an opportunity for public comment at a later date.

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