Unlike in other states, the foreclosure crisis left Vermont relatively unscathed. No overgrown yards. No broken windows. But Burlington International Airport’s effort to buy properties and relocate residents from neighborhoods awash in noise from airplanes has created a scene that resembles that crisis.
Cruise down Airport Drive in South Burlington, and take a right on Dumont Avenue. Side-by-side, you’ll see several vacant one-story homes that were recently purchased by the airport – yellow demolition permits in their windows, junk scattered across their yards.
"It’s a big hardware store," said David Bouffard, 32, a real estate agent who lives here with his three children in a house surrounded by abandoned homes.
This is a zone where the noise from airport operations is deafening enough that the plan is simply to abandon the neighborhood and demolish it. But Bouffard doesn’t even seem to notice the noise anymore.
As commercial airplanes flew overhead on a recent afternoon, he said that he has strong bonds to the neighborhood. "This is where I grew up. This is where all my friends were."
Bouffard said he won’t sell to the airport. "I don’t want to move. I’ll stay as long as I can. I don’t care if they offer me $10 for my house at the very end," he said. "We just put a $150,000 addition on before this plan came into effect and then a year later they want to buy houses. Well, there’s no eminent domain yet. They can’t force you out."
The Airport Commission says it’s not trying to force anyone out, but it has drawn up maps that show where the noise is the worst. The effort is part of a Federal Aviation Administration program to relocate residents like Bouffard from these rundown neighborhoods to give the airport more room for the noise.
"This is a very unusual situation," said Heather Kendrew, the director of environmental compliance for Burlington Airport. "I can’t think of anywhere else in Vermont where you would find a neighborhood that looks like that."
Inside the airport terminal, Kendrew pointed to one of the FAA’s maps to explain the program. "If you are located in an area where the line reads 65 DNL, which is a day-night average of decibels, you become eligible for the FAA’s relocation program."
Under that program, the federal government gives the airport money to buy properties where the noise is considered unbearable. For now, Kendrew says it’s voluntary. "Other airports have used eminent domain to take homes. We do not want to do that."
Kendrew says there’s been a spike in the number of purchased properties this year because the airport is expecting more than $5 million from the FAA. So far, Burlington International has bought approximately 120 homes. Demolition permits are pending for 57 of them.
Airport facilities maintenance foreman Matt Harding and his three-man staff are charged with keeping up these properties.
"It’s like having your house at home but 60 of them," said Harding as he opened a door to one of the properties.
Boarding up windows and doors, disconnecting utilities, mowing the knee-high grass and removing copper so that thieves don’t steal it – Harding said it all used to be quite surreal. Now, it’s routine. "I really just like to think that I’m keeping up the airport, and this is just something else I have to do."
For many, a federally funded buyout of homes in the midst of this storm of sound is a good idea. But until these houses are purchased and demolished – maybe turned into green space or developed commercially – Harding and his crew will have to maintain their curbside appeal.
Slide show: Maintaining Abandoned Homes