Harford airport gets OK to expand; examiner's opinion overrides residents' concerns

Harford County's zoning hearing examiner has recommended a special exception be granted to Harford County Airport to expand the facility, despite objections from some people living in the area who expect the expansion to negatively impact their communities.

Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe issued a 26-page opinion Wednesday that will permit Harford County Airport Owners Group to build a 3,200-foot long runway and make other improvements to the 60-year-old airport in the community of Aldino, between Churchville and Aberdeen.

Kahoe's opinion is still subject to review and possible modification by the Harford County Council, which sits as the county Board of Appeals, likely ensuring a protracted dispute between the airport owners and opponents of the expansion that could eventually end up in court. The county zoning people's counsel represented opponents.

One of those who spoke against the expansion during hearings before Kahoe in December and January was Harford County Council President Billy Boniface, who said plans for a longer runway would affect his horse breeding and boarding operation on Harmony Church Road, less than a mile from the airport.

Boniface told Kahoe he was worried potential jet plane traffic would disturb his quality of life and especially affect the horses on his farm, according to a summary of his testimony from the hearing examiner's decision. Kevin Hess, a representative of the airport owners group, testified they would not agree to ban jet plane traffic because federal regulations won't permit such prohibitions at so-called general use airports.

Kahoe's opinion does not address use of the airport by jet aircraft. In addition to permitting construction of the new runway and new taxiways and improvements to buildings, the opinion allows disturbance of non-tidal wetlands in the 75-foot natural resource district buffer on the property.

The approval is dependent on the airport getting all state and federal approvals for the construction, submitting a site and lighting plan, screening proposed hangars from all adjacent residences and the Millbrook Creek subdivision and securely storing aircraft on site.

The Airport Owners Group started making plans to upgrade the airport nearly two years ago, when its president, Shawn Pyle, suggested converting three existing runways into one longer runway, replacing old hangars and possibly modernizing the central building.

The airport has been on Aldino Road since 1942, and the three runways date to the late 1950s, Pyle said at the time.

He had promised "no grandiose plans" or large jet traffic for the airport, just safer conditions for existing planes and their pilots.

In March 2013, the County Council passed legislation specifically geared to accommodating the expansion and modernization of the airport, including eliminating requirements that the takeoff and landing path of aircraft be at least 250 feet above surrounding property, as well as that structures for servicing aircraft must be at least 200 feet from a property line. There was no public opposition to the bill.

At the zoning hearings, Hess testified that hangar space is in short supply and planes run off the runway several times each year during landings.

He said the airport is proposing installing taxiway lights, surrounding the airfield with an 8-foot, chain-link fence with electronic gates and building new hangars about 20 feet high.

Part of the proposed runway would cross over the non-tidal wetlands and Hess said he does not believe a runway could be designed any other way.

Three accidents in the past three years have resulted in airplanes being transported to a major repair facility, he said. The remodeled airport would have a maintenance facility to do more extensive repair work.

While no plans for jet airplane landings have been made, Hess said light jets are being designed which require shorter airfields. He said he does not believe he will see any, but they should be able to land on the new runway.

Besides Boniface, 10 people expressed concerns about changes at the airport during the hearings.

Robert Tibbs and Edna Hirsch, both of whom live within a mile of the airport, said more noise and shifts in air traffic would affect their rural quality of life and scare farm animals.

Several neighbors who live next to the property also testified that noise and plane traffic would adversely affect them.

Others worried about stormwater runoff and the ability of Level Volunteer Fire Company to handle any serious incidents at the airport.

Rowan Glidden, vice-president of land planning for G.W. Stephens Jr. and Associates, and county planning and zoning deputy director Anthony McClune both testified that they do not expect a significant change to the neighborhood from the proposed airport upgrades.

Kahoe's decision remains pending for 30 days until May 14, during which time any party in the case can file for a review by the county council acting in its capacity as the zoning board of appeals. If no review is filed, the opinion takes effect after that date.

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