STRATFORD -- For the first time in 23 years, new construction was approved Tuesday by the Zoning Commission for Sikorsky Memorial Airport.
But it's not a plan for long-debated airport expansion or runway improvements.
It's a plan for 65 T-hangars to be placed on a dilapidated, debris-strewn runway that has been out of operation for more than 20 years.
Just a week after the Stratford Town Council directed Mayor James R. Miron to begin talks to obtain the airport from the city of Bridgeport, a local company gained unanimous approval from the Town's Zoning Commission to proceed with a million-dollar plan to provide more hangar space for small, private aircraft.
Even as lawmakers in Hartford continue to talk of a possible state takeover of the 800-acre airport -- located in Stratford, but owned by Bridgeport -- New England Hangar Development LLC presented a proposal during a public hearing that calls for constructing a cluster of "T-hangars" on the old runway. The proposal was greeted with strong support during Tuesday's public hearing, as even residents near the airport who have long opposed expansion and runway improvements expressed support.
"I know it's strange for me to be standing up here supporting anything concerning the airport, but this plan would be good for the area by cleaning up what has become an eyesore to the community," Second Avenue resident Walter Rimkunas told the commission.
Rimkunas, 76, who has for decades opposed airport expansion, said "as long as this doesn't change the footprint of the airport, I don't think anybody in the community is going to object."
Company Co-presidents Gene Shapiro and Bud McGarry reassured the commission the plan would not change the footprint at the airport.
"This is not a plan to expand, just to provide space for small planes to be inside hangars," Shapiro said. "That's good for the planes and pilots and for the community."
Bennett M. Brooks, president of Brooks Acoustics Corp. in Vernon, told the commission the hangars "would actually even lessen noise."
Former airport manager Morgan Kaolian urged the commission to approve the proposal.
"Airplanes need to be housed for protection, and this plan is a good one," Kaolian said. But one local attorney warned the zoning panel it should hold off on a decision because of possible legal issues that could arise if the airport were sold and shut down.
"I want to remind the commission that just last week the Town Council voted for the mayor to begin negotiations with the city of Bridgeport to obtain the airport," Stratford attorney Barry Knott said.
"I think before you make any decision, you should consult with the town attorney on what would happen if the town obtains the airport and shuts it down," Knott said. "There could be tremendous liability on the town's part if that happens."
But attorney Heather Brown, representing New England Hangar Development Inc., said Knott's comments "are not germane to the proposal, and inappropriate."
"This is not a matter for the Zoning Commission to consider," Brown said. "Besides, the chances of the town obtaining the airport are very, very slim."
Shapiro said afterward he is "very excited that finally something new has been approved at the airport after many years, and we look forward to being part of that."
Each hangar will be 10 feet high and 33 feet wide, placed side by side on a closed runway at the southern end of the airport property, near Lordship Boulevard.
Now, the company will have to negotiate a lease with Bridgeport, which supports the plan.
Under the plan the company will clear the debris-strewn "South Ramp," a former runway near Lordship Boulevard, which is within a residential zone.
The hangars will sell for about $50,000 each, and pilots would also have to pay about $180 monthly to lease the space, as well as an additional property tax to the town of Stratford.
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