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Winooski Tax Heats Up Air War

May 4, 1988

WINOOSKI, Vt. (AP) _ This innovative Yankee town, which once considered building a dome over itself to keep out the harsh Vermont winter, is trying to tax neighboring Burlington for its noisy use of Winooski’s airspace.

The western Vermont town of about 6,300 people sits at the end of Burlington International Airport’s runway, and its downtown is just off the airport’s main approach.

Residents say the noise from helicopters, Vermont National Guard fighters and jets flying in and out of Vermont’s largest city can be unbearable.

″They go right over our building,″ Alice Levesque said recently. ″It’s really an awful thing. They wouldn’t do that to a herd of cows.″

Winooski officials, saying the planes were invading their airspace, decided to tax Burlington. Burlington balked.

Winooski, contending that Burlington hadn’t paid the taxes, then filed suit in Chittenden County Superior Court to collect on a bill of $90,000, plus interest.

″By flying that low, they have essentially confiscated the land that is below that air,″ said Dominique Casavant, a physics professor and former Winooski selectman. The airport noise depresses land values, Casavant said.

″Yes, it is unusual ... (but) this is not the first time Winooski has set precedent,″ Casavant said.

In 1979, a dome to cover the town was proposed to save energy and ward off winter. The proposal was the subject of an international symposium and federal money was requested to study it, but the project never got out of the planning stages.

Officials argue that they aren’t taxing the planes, but the space they use when they land and take off.

″Property taxes are not novel,″ said Winooski City Manager Brendan Keleher. ″Property taxes are our business.″

Burlington has dismissed the airspace tax, although Bernard Sanders, the city’s outspoken Socialist mayor, applauded Winooski for its imagination.

″As somebody who is interested in alternatives to the property tax, I have to congratulate our friends in the city of Winooksi,″ Sanders said. ″It’s an interesting concept, but not terribly practical. If Winooski could do it, so could Toledo. We would be evolved to a toll booth in the sky.″

Landowners have sued over airspace rights in the past, but experts said they cannot recall a case where one city sued another to collect taxes for airspace.

Walter Hellerstein, a University of Georgia law professor and tax expert, said he had not seen the suit but called the idea behind it ″bizarre.″

″It seems to me, it would be as if the state of Iowa were trying to tax the city of San Francisco,″ Hellerstein said, explaining that a plane might fly over the Midwestern state on its way to the West Coast. ″I’ve never heard of anything like this.″

But Peter Teachout, a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, said the lawsuit is not so far-fetched, even if it presents some practical problems.

Teachout said the city faces the difficulty of placing a monetary value on the airspace. Tax values are normally established by properties’ market values.

″How do you figure out what that airspace is worth?″ he asked. ″Nobody is going to pay for it.″

The lawsuit also has to draw a boundary on the airspace in question and has to show that Winooski’s situation is different from that of most other communities, where planes overhead fly at greater altitudes, Teachout said.

″That would be the toughest problem - convincing a court it isn’t going to be opening up the floodgates (to future suits).″

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