Those fond of the historic Walter J Koladza Airport in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, can breathe easier thanks in part to an AOPA and community-led effort that earned the airfield a ”special permit” from the town.
The airport, located in the southwestern corner of Massachusetts, is home to about 40 aircraft and is frequented by emergency medical helicopter flights.
The permit became necessary after three area residents filed a suit against the town in Boston Land Court alleging the town had violated its own laws by allowing the airport to develop outside of zoning requirements and aimed to force the airport back into its pre-zoning, 1930s-era footprint, effectively shutting down the airport. Without this permit, the airport would have been forced to shut down its flight school and aircraft maintenance shop, despite having been open and operating continuously since the 1930s.
The plaintiffs in this case were given time to appeal the town's decision to grant the permit. The plaintiffs ultimately dropped the lawsuit on May 31, which ended the case and cemented the “special permit.”
In response to the suit, AOPA sent a letter to the town officials to dispel myths and misinformation thrown around by a small group of local anti-airport residents. The letter covered topics including aviation safety, the airport’s condition, airport noise, and environmental impacts and warned of the negative economic impact closing a small airport can have on its surrounding community.
At the heart of the effort to save the airport, a local group led by AOPA members Michael Mah and Richard Stanley called the Citizens Committee to Save the Great Barrington Airport brought attention and action to the cause. The group created a successful online petition that garnered over 10,000 signatures and produced a high-quality pro-airport video that highlights the airfield’s proud heritage and its importance as a community resource for medical services and aspiring pilots who seek to train at small local airfields.
While unconventional for most support groups, the Citizens Committee’s use of creativity in producing the pro-airport video foreshadowed the poignant reality to come if the airport were closed with the loss of access to critical emergency medical services.
“It takes a village to save an airport,” said AOPA Eastern Regional Manager Sean Collins. “Being able to advocate successfully is a function of how much influence can be leveraged on a given issue. Doing so effectively requires an active and engaged local constituency. Through Michael and Richard’s leadership, the Citizens Committee created a network of pilots and nonpilot community members to illustrate just how much the broader community values its airport as an economic engine and transportation asset.”