State ban on helicopters at Katama Airfield pauses hangar project

Katama airfield officials have beep pressing ahead for years to replace this dilapidated hanger. — Michael Cummo

Long-delayed plans to build a new, larger hangar at the Katama Airfield are up in the air while the Katama Airfield Commission decides whether to accept a decision from the state’s top environmental agency that says helicopters may not land at the public grass airstrip, now used by small, mostly single-engine planes.

Robert O’Connor, director of the Division of Conservation Services at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (OEEA), in a letter dated August 12 addressed to Jane Varkonda, Edgartown conservation commission assistant, said “that helicopters, even with the proposed limits, may have a deleterious effect on the wildlife and resources whose permanent preservation was the purpose for granting public funds to the Town.”

OEEA cited a ban, dating back 30 years, on helicopter landings at the public airport, stemming from a 1985 memorandum of agreement (MOA) attached to a $1.85 million grant provided to conserve and preserve the airport.

The MOA was signed by the OEE, the Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Edgartown conservation commission, and Edgartown selectmen.

The memorandum said that the airfield may not be “expanded in size or amount or intensity of use from what it was before the 1960s,” and according to the OEEA, it explicitly bans helicopters. With the exception of OEEA, all other signatories have agreed to allow to allow helicopters.

The commission must decide whether to accept the decision or appeal the OEEA decision, which could potentially mean legal action.

Katama Airfield Commission chairman and Edgartown police officer Jamie Craig told The Times that until the 1940s, the airfield had two hangars, but they were destroyed in a storm. The owner of the airport rebuilt a single hangar from the remnants he salvaged. That hangar is what sits on the airfield now, Mr. Craig said.

Mr. Craig said the commission thinks it would be more efficient to build a hangar similar in size to what originally existed. The current hangar, he said, can barely hold two planes.

The helicopter issue surfaced during revisions to the original MOA. The airport commission sent a letter to the OEEA last summer, asking the body to get on board with the changes. OEAA did not respond. That prompted a request to Representative Timothy Madden to look into the delay. The answer was the August 12 letter declining the request to allow helicopter landings.

However, the EOEA position is in conflict with federal regulations, which state that public airports cannot arbitrarily deny helicopters the right to land.

Mr. Craig said that this puts airfield manager George F. Smith in a tricky situation when incoming helicopters approach and request permission to use the airfield.

“It may be an airport, but the second you get one millimeter off the ground, you’re in airspace that the FAA controls, not the town, not the conservation people,” Mr. Craig said. “The FAA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division (MDOTAD) have laws and rules, and it isn’t necessarily up to someone else to say something. I don’t know all the details, but the MDOTAD has said, ‘You have a publicly used airport, it’s a public-use airport, and you can’t just wave a wand and decide who’s coming and who isn’t.’ It’s like a public park.”

As for environmental concerns, Mr. Craig, a former Navy helicopter pilot, said that helicopters are no worse for the environment than the airplanes that land there now.

The ban was put in place, he said, because of political motivations.

“The history of why [the helicopter ban] was put in there in 1985 is a little murky,” he said. “Essentially it was put in there to bar a particular person who was trying to operate a commercial helicopter out of the airport, which nobody wanted.”

“It wasn’t that they thought helicopters had some sort of different effect on the conservation aspect … The guy left, and the very few helicopters that come in there do it very carefully and call to get permission in advance.”

Mr. Craig said he believes FAA regulations require that an aircraft ban be backed up by a study, similar to the studies required to alter speed limits on roads.

The next step is for the airfield commission to meet and decide how they want to move forward, which means deciding whether the helicopter issue is as imminent as the need for a new hangar. The current hangar, Mr. Craig said, is so dilapidated that he expects it to fall down.

“The question for us is whether it’s such a big deal that we’d want to hold this whole process up,” Mr. Craig said. “So honestly if we had to bar them, we need a hangar, because we have a hangar that’s going to fall down.”

He added that he is unsure if legal action is the necessary next step.

“I’d like to get it going, I don’t know if we’re going to enter into a protracted legal battle about who’s right or wrong on this issue … I’d hate to be detrimental to the town by getting into some legal battle, but it is confusing.”

The hangar replacement planning project began in 1996 and fundraising efforts kicked off in 1998.