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Commissioners reject expansion of Carroll County Regional Airport

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One of the most ambitious, and contentious, issues in Carroll County over the past decade came to a crash landing on Thursday, Jan. 26, as the Board of County Commissioners rejected the $74 million expansion plan for Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster.

In a 3-2 vote that came after statements by each commissioner, the board directed staff to begin creating a revised master plan for the airport — one that will accommodate only airplanes with small wing spans, classified as C-II aircraft.

That revision dismisses the expansion plan.

"I think we ought to be the best little C-II airport we can be," said Commissioner Robin Frazier, who opposed the expansion plan with commissioners Richard Rothschild and Haven Shoemaker. "It fits in better with our community; it fits in better with the location."

The expansion of the airport along Route 97 has been studied for years, and proposed extending the runway from its present length of 5,100 feet to 6,400 feet to accommodate larger aircraft.

With the expansion, the airport could have moved from handling C-II airplanes, which have a wing span from 49 to 78 feet, to C-III aircraft, which have wing spans of 79 to 118 feet.

If the board had voted to move forward with the proposal, all but about 2.5 percent of the $74 million cost would be paid by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration.

The county had estimated its obligation would have been about $1.8 million, though opponents said other ancillary costs would have made it considerably higher.

Matter of money

Regardless, three of the five commissioners said the cost — local or federal — could not be justified. Shoemaker, who represents Hampstead and Finksburg in the 2nd Commissioner District, said, "It's still taxpayers' money."

"Before I vote to spend $74 million of taxpayer money, I have to have an assurance that the people I represent are going to get a bang off the buck, and, in this case, we're talking about a lot of bucks," Shoemaker said. "I don't have that assurance."

And Rothschild, who represents Mount Airy in the 4th District, said he was "1,000 percent certain" that a majority of commissioners would reject the expansion if the county had to pay for it solely with county money.

"If we wouldn't do it with county money, then we shouldn't do it with state and federal money." he said.

But Commissioner Doug Howard, who with Commissioner David Roush was on the losing end of the 3-2 vote, rejected that argument, saying the federal government's money would come from a pool specifically allocated for airport safety and expansions.

"This money was raised for that purpose," said Howard, who represents Sykesville and Eldersburg in the 5th District.

"All we've decided … is that the federal government (will) invest somewhere else; bring that economic support to someone else, and put Carroll County further behind the case by not acknowledging the fact that it's a trust fund for a specific purpose," he said.

During the discussion, Howard had said he considered a "state-of-the-art airport in Carroll County" to be a needed asset for economic growth, and said a vote against the expansion would, "largely signal to the economic development community that we are taking a step back."

"I do not believe we are putting a burden on the Carroll County taxpayer," said Howard.

The airport expansion was a key issue in the 2010 commissioner elections — which saw an entirely new board elected.

An airport master plan that included an expansion had been approved by the previous board, but it was up to this one to pull the trigger on whether to advance it toward federal funding.

Last September, the board postponed a vote on the issue to gather more information, as some commissioners expressed skepticism about whether or not the project would really spur economic growth.

Campaign reaction?

Meanwhile, complaints from the community centered on the cost, noise and related quality of life issues.

In a public comment session immediately before today's vote, several residents said the expansion would have too much negative impact on the community, with no guarantee that a bigger airport would lure more corporate clients — or more revenue.

Mary Kowalski, a longtime opponent of the expansion, told the commissioners, "We're being told we need this. We don't need this."

"I'm asking you to follow through on your campaign rhetoric and vote against the airport expansion," she said. "This is when we see what our elected officials are really all about."

But in his comments, Roush pointed out that he lives near the airport himself, and was elected by a large margin in the 3rd District — composed of Westminster and its surrounding neighborhoods — even though he was seen by voters as a vocal supporter of the expansion.

"This is literally in my back yard, and I've supported it from the get go," Roush said. "It'll be good for the county; it'll be good for economic development."

In September, county officials had said the expansion could bring more revenue to the county's airport enterprise fund from fuel sales, user fees and hangar rentals.

But Frazier, who represents Manchester and Taneytown in the 1st District, challenged the notion that the expansion would bring more corporate jet clients to Carroll.

"I don't think Carroll County's location is one that has the infrastructure — next to a big highway and that sort of thing — that would necessarily attract that customer," she said.

Frazier also suggested Maryland's tax situation — she noted the current proposal for a gas tax increase and curtailing of tax exemptions — is a pressing deterrent to companies moving here anyway.

"If you're choosing to set up your business headquarters I think Maryland, at this time, would not be your choice," she said.

While he was on the losing end of the vote, Howard said he was proud of the process that led to it, including public hearings and extensive discussions on what he called, "Our most difficult decision."

The master plan revision will look at various options, from doing nothing to upgrading facilities and technology — but all under the C-II designation.

Howard said as the county begins that process, it runs a risk that without the FAA's support, future costs — including the expense of the master plan, resurfacing of the runway and other maintenance and renovation issues — could fall squarely on the county.

"We've taken a situation where we had a $1.8 million likely cap over a long period of time, and put ourselves in a great deal of financial jeopardy," he said.

A timeline and additional details on the airport debate may be found at ccgovernment.carr.org/ccg/airport/default.asp.

Follow Jim Joyner on Twitter at @jimjoyner

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