By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO August 30, 2005 The battle over the Wurtsboro Airport extends far beyond the walls of Mamakatings town hall, as this war of words and actions engulfs the airport itself.
Glider and airplane pilots Gregory Squires, his wife Phyllis, Todd Pattist and his wife Karen have all been evicted off the property. They have all been told to have their motor homes removed from the airport or they will be towed away. Squires said he has been told to take his airplanes elsewhere.
The Squires and the Pattists claim they were firmly instructed by airport manager Joe Bennis to do so after they spoke out in favor of the Town of Mamakatings plan to acquire the airport property through eminent domain. The town is considering taking that route after Supervisor Charles Penna said he made a $4.7 million offer to the Barone Estate, which was rejected in favor of a $4.5 million offer from Long Island developer Shalom Lamm.
Roseann Barone Balow, the executrix of the estate of Theresa Barone (who owned the 407-acre property), was not available by press time for an interview.
Squires and Pattist said Bennis is a partner with Lamm in purchasing the property, but Bennis denied it, saying he has no plans to join Lamm and has not been asked by Lamm to do so.
Lamm has put down $25,000 on the airport but has yet to close the deal.
Yesterday, Lamm said that he indeed intends to promote Bennis to a position as operating partner with a minority stake in the property if he is successful in acquiring the airport.
To Preserve Airport
Lamm said there are three grass runways on the airport property, one of which he plans to eliminate. Another one is not in use, he explained, but one crosswind runway would be preserved.
He also expressed his commitment to preserving the airport by stating that he will petition the town to place permanent deed restrictions on the airport portion of the development. To change those restrictions will require him to go through monstrous legal hoops, he said.
Lamm said that if the town can draft something to keep the airport open permanently, he would sign it.
What about the controversy between some pilots and the airport manager?
Lamm said he had sent a letter to Bennis last week, asking him not to inflame the situation.
I beg you to refrain from anything but the most cordial relations and courtesies not only to the friends of our plans but to our opponents, he wrote.
Squires said he had two airplanes in a hangar, which he has now moved elsewhere. Pilots pay their rents monthly to the airport. They do not have a lease.
Squires is the Federal Aviation Administrations designated flight examiner. He has the authority to approve pilot licenses. Even though he was evicted, he has returned to the airport to conduct flight tests at the request of the airport.
His wife, Phyllis, called the events pretty traumatic. It is awful. You should be able to state your own opinion.
Squires is the president of the Wurtsboro Airport Preservation Society, a group of pilots who are committed to providing 2.5 percent towards the towns acquisition of the airport.
I certainly dont feel good about it, he said of his eviction.
Squires lamented the deterioration of the relationship between him and Bennis, who has flown planes at the airport for many years.
He seemed to get on board with Shaloms vision that played a big factor. I wasnt in support of his vision at all, said Squires. . . . I will still honor my commitment to the FAA and do flight testing.
He stressed the importance of the town owning the airport.
Airports that arent publicly owned dont survive. There is always too much economic pressure put on them. Ultimately, they are turned into something else, he explained. They are a developers dream. If they are not turned over into a public entity, they disappear.
Squires spoke after a public hearing at the Town of Mamakating Hall on Tuesday night over the towns plans to take the land by eminent domain. One of the speakers said that airports have dwindled from a high of approximately 10,000 throughout the country to about 5,000 currently.
Pattist said he was told harshly to take his motor home off the airports grounds following his comments at the hearing. He and his wife, also a pilot, would use the home on the weekends, but he claimed Bennis threatened to call a tow truck if he didnt come and take it. He added that Bennis allegedly warned him that he might shut down glider operations at the airport.
When the couple asked Bennis if they would still be able to fly their glider and vintage airplane at Wurtsboro, Bennis allegedly would not say.
But by Saturday, Pattist said he was told that he would no longer be able to use a hanger or tow for his glider, so he moved his plane and glider out. He missed a day of work driving from Connecticut to move his property off the airports grounds, he said.
The airport will reportedly raise the hangar rents by 20 percent in September. Pilots share hangar space for gliders currently at a cost of $100 a month, while some shared airplane hangars run $165 a month. The airport raised the rents 20 percent last year.
Pattist was notified Wednesday morning after he spoke in favor of the towns plan on Tuesday evening at the public hearing.
He claimed that Bennis told him, Im somebody you shouldnt cross, and youll learn that.
Karen and Todd Pattist, who live in Connecticut, met each other when he was an instructor there and taught her how to fly.
We believe so much in the airport, were willing to get thrown off it, she said.
There were about 20 other pilots at the hearing, though most of them did not speak.
Pattists wife said she is afraid their airplane will be tampered with, although it is a federal offense to do so.
Nevertheless, the Pattists said they consider Bennis a family friend, as they used to fly with him. He even put money into the pilots association before he partnered with Lamm. They believe he has taken the issue very personally.
Besides their fear that Lamm will get rid of the airport once the FAA agreement expires in 11 years, they are afraid that he intends to remove the grass runway which is used by all of the gliders. It is extremely rare that a glider will use the paved runway, since the gliders roll when they land and shouldnt interfere with the motorized airplanes.
The Pattists also said there have been two golden eagles spotted on the land which Lamm may develop.
What Joe Bennis Has to Say
Bennis became the airport manager after the late George Barone became ill.
Barone passed away this weekend. He was an aviator himself who repaired planes and taught others how to fly them. He was also an FAA-recognized flight examiner.
This past week, Bennis admitted to kicking Squires off the airport.
He was sabotaging the business, said Bennis, complaining that Squires was talking to other pilots in an attempt to rally them to his side.
Bennis added that complaints were lodged against Squires by some of the pilots and charged that Squires did not always show up on the weekends to handle his duties as the airports flight examiner.
Bennis said he felt stabbed in the back by Pattist when the pilot spoke in favor of eminent domain at the hearing.
That made me unhappy, he said, using several unflattering and unprintable words to describe Pattist.
Bennis intimated that he was once friends with Pattist but is now glad hes rid of him.
I am not retaliating, he said. I am expressing displeasure at their disloyalty.
While he admitted he told Pattist to move his motor home off the premises, Bennis denied ever kicking Pattist out entirely. He said that Pattist overreacted by moving his plane and glider out.
He added that he met with some of the pilots this past weekend to clear the air.
This is supposed to be a happy place, he said.
Bennis said he was supporting Lamm because he believes the town and the developers plans are quite similar. The main exception, in his mind, is that the taxpayers would foot the bill of the acquisition. He does not believe the FAA can guarantee 95 percent of the purchase price.
Penna has produced correspondence from the FAA indicating a willingness on their part to cover the costs. But Bennis does not consider that a guarantee. At the least, the town would have to find a way to put up a hefty sum up front, he said. He called the eminent domain procedure illegal and expects Lamm to prevail in court.
He called Squires and Penna crooks who were out to enrich themselves.
The Supervisors Stance
Town of Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna is standing with the angry pilots. Of their eviction, he said, I think it is only a prelude of what is to come. First the pilots, then you the public.
Since the FAA has restrictions on the airports use and has given the Barones substantial funds, Penna considers it a public airport.
If you can already remove the public from a public airport. What will you do when you own it?
He said the airport is one of 15 in the state that can be used on an emergency basis for the military.
For a person to be removing the public from the airport is a tragedy. It is an absolute tragedy, remarked Penna.