AIRPORT NOISE LAW


Vermont Man Challenges Demolition of Homes as a Noise-Abatement Measure


JULY 14, 2014
SOUTH BURLINGTON, VERMONT

George Maille keeps a video camera and a sound meter next to him in the early hours of the morning. If planes begin rumbling and roaring on the taxiway several hundred feet from his house, he's ready to record. This is part of his seemingly never-ending research project about the ways the Burlington International Airport has affected its neighbors. Maille has been an IBMer, a sound engineer, a football referee and a student pilot. In an interview last week he sat in his Logwood Street living room surrounded by tools he's using to rebuild a kitchen cabinet.

Recently, he became his own legal representation as he argued against zoning permits for the demolition of nearby homes at the city Development Review Board and at Vermont Environmental Court (Docket No. 93-7-12 Vtec).

Even before he decided to appeal South Burlington's issuance of zoning permits, airport-related research took "pretty close to 100 percent" of his free time, he said.

"I lived, dreamed, slept and ate this stuff," Maille said. "I'd go to work, I'd come home, I'd eat, and I'd get behind my computer and basically stay there until what, 1:00, 2:00 in the morning sometimes? I mean, hell, I couldn't sleep. ... so I kept myself busy and read and researched this."

He lost in Environmental Court (see court's decision) and appealed this time with a lawyer to the Vermont Supreme Court, where the case has been sitting for months.

At stake: The plan for removing dozens of homes around the airport, and possible changes to the way South Burlington and other towns interpret state law.

The airport calls the case "counterproductive"; Maille says it's a matter of principle. A decision could come any day.


The Case

Maille wants the airport's home demolition plans to go through more scrutiny to safeguard the neighborhood from improper demolition. Maille said the case is not about the F-35 fighter jets, which are slated to start flying out of Burlington International Airport in coming years and have stirred controversy. It's not even about the removal of the homes he said he's not trying to stop the airport from demolishing the homes or hurt the airport, he said. Rather, it's a matter of principle. "If you're going to play the game, play by the rules," Maille said.

Gene Richards, director of aviation at Burlington International Airport, said the airport does play by the rules, and said it would have been better for the airport and the neighborhood if plans had gone ahead as usual. "I think it's counterproductive, meaning I don't see the win here at all," Richards said. "I see that many people in the airport, in the community, have not benefited from his efforts so far. And I don't see how anybody could benefit from it." Nevertheless, Richards said Maille is within his rights and said they have a good relationship. "We listen to him like we would any neighbor and take the concerns to heart," Richards said.

Paul Conner, director of South Burlington Planning and Zoning, declined to comment on Maille's case except to call Maille an "active participant" on airport issues.

Maille and his lawyer, Damien Leonard, have argued that the airport should go through the zoning process known as site plan review prior to receiving a permit. "There's something significant about acquiring that kind of property with that kind of acreage, having that type of impact on a community to include a school and not require anything more than a $40 permit," Maille said. "I'm sorry, Environmental Court, you didn't get this. You didn't get this."

William Ellis and Amanda Lafferty, the attorneys representing Burlington and South Burlington, disagree. They argued in Supreme Court that demolition of the homes does not require site plan review, especially because South Burlington land development regulations exempt one- and two-family houses from the full zoning process. "Because the existing use is single-family dwelling and because they are that first step, site plan review is not required," Lafferty said in court.

Maille also wants the airport to commit to more noise mitigation methods when they remove the homes, which he said increases noise impacts. (Richards, the airport aviation director, disagrees.)


John Q. Public

Born on an Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine, during the Korean War, Maille moved to Vermont with his mother when he was only a few weeks old. He has lived near the airport with his wife, Charlene, on Logwood Street for 38 years. He studied electrical engineering and later computer science, but he said he never completed a degree. He left the University of Vermont after his junior year to work at IBM and worked there until retirement in May 2013.

He used to have a recording studio in his basement, Last Exit Recording, which he said is closed because of the noise. "I'm still getting magazines, even though I can't use the studio any more," Maille said.

In November 2008 a home next to his property was taken down, shaking his house and sending debris over the fence and into his yard. He found out, he said, that asbestos was discovered in one of the homes mid-demolition.

In 2012, Maille appealed the 54 zoning permits that would have allowed the airport to demolish or remove homes it had purchased under a federally funded grant program and turn the lots into open space. By that point he felt he knew enough to navigate the case by himself. He estimates he's spent more than 3,000 hours researching, studying federal and local law and Federal Aviation Administration documents and working with attorneys. He's also spent about $10,000 over the course of the fight.

"I'm just your average John Q. Public," Maille said. "At times, I'll have to admit, I felt overwhelmed, but as Ma would tell you, I'm a pretty tenacious kind of guy. ... 'No' is not in my vocabulary. And I'm a stubborn, hard-headed French-Irishman."


Put up or Shut up

Maille has both supporters and detractors in the neighborhood. "I knew it was going to be a love-hate relationship," Maille said of his cause's reception in the neighborhood. "Half the people are going to love me because they stand for what I stand for, and that is, follow the law, do things right, be forthright, transparent and honest in your communications."

As for the other half? Some neighbors say the airport will do whatever it wants, Maille said: "Put up and shut up." He has chosen to fight, he said, on behalf of neighbors who can't afford to move.

Carmine Sargent, who lives near the airport on Elizabeth Street, said some neighbors have mixed feelings about his work, mostly because of the delay Maille's court case has caused in demolishing vacant houses that are an "eyesore." Personally, she supports Maille. "I think he's very reasonable in what he's doing," Sargent said. "I think he's researched it well, he's very well-informed, much better than I am on the topic of zoning."


"Fundamental Engineering"

These days, Maille waits for the Supreme Court decision. But even if he loses the case, he said it's "absolutely" worthwhile. He explains it in terms of the scientific method. "If I didn't try, and I don't try, then I only have myself to blame. But if I try and I fail, then I can learn from the failures and maybe when I try again, be better at it. It's the whole, you know, fundamental engineering attitude. Success doesn't breed success. Failure breeds success. That's how you get things to work."

Source: Free Press, by April Burbank, Staff Writer. Contact at (802) 660-1863 or aburbank@freepressmedia.com .