Harford airport plan moves forward; owner buying more property for safety reasons

Residents of the Churchville area expressed concern about noise and risk from a growing Harford County Airport, off of Aldino Road, during a community input meeting Monday, but the airport's attorney said those concerns are probably unwarranted.

Maryland Aviation Administration officials made residents nervous by saying if the airport expands as proposed, it could get as many as 60,000 flights per year.

Attorney John Gessner, however, said Wednesday it is hard to accurately measure the number of flights because the airport has no control tower.

Shawn Pyle, president of the Harford County Airport Owners Group, the airport's corporate owner, said in February that the property in Churchville is zoned agricultural and commercial and that he was working on plans to convert the three runways into one longer runway, replace old hangars and, perhaps, modernize the management building, which he said floods every time it rains.

Gessner said he plans to get more accurate numbers of projected take-offs and landings, "now that we know that that is a specific concern," in time for a zoning appeals hearing on the property. Under county zoning laws, private aircraft landing and storage is permitted as a special exception in the agricultural zone where the airport is located.

That hearing will probably not take place until October or November, he said.

"We are going to try to calculate the number of take-offs and landings in similar-sized airports," Gessner said. The numbers given by MAA "is sort of the worst-case scenario."

The corporation is in the process of acquiring some property around the airport as a buffer zone and is likely to acquire more, Gessner said.

The exact properties that may be bought and details on their size have yet to be determined, he said. The MAA, however, does require a buffer zone and, "for safety reasons, the MAA recognizes those should be vacated for safety purposes," he said.

"There's some additional residential properties that are being purchased," he said. "That is their long-range plans. It is not going to be done in six months."

"The idea is to identify properties that could be adversely affected to a serious degree," he continued. "The MAA requirements dictate that we have certain safety zones that, given obstructions like a house or trees, that could be located in the flight pattern.

Gessner said it is "reasonable" for residents to be concerned about noise and risk.

He, however, does not believe the changes likely to be made at the airport are very significant or likely to have a serious impact on area residents.

"The airport is there and it is limited usage," he said. "These improvements, as the MAA confirmed, are going to make the airport safer. We do not see this as a big change."

"There should be some more air traffic, but given the changes we are making, it should not be that much more than what there is now," he said.

"I know people are skeptical about any development proposal, [but] we are confident when they hear all the information, when they have a chance to ask questions of the experts, we can lay out all these answers," Gessner added.

Pyle, the airport's operator, said last winter he had asked the county's planning and zoning department to "tweak some of the language [in the zoning code] to let us complete our facility on the current ag ground."

On March 5, the Harford County Council approved several changes in the zoning code regarding airport regulations, as council members acknowledged the legislation was specifically tailored to the Harford County Airport. Among those changes was a requirement that a community input meeting like Monday's be held prior to the airport operator seeking a special zoning exception.

The legislation removed prior requirements that the takeoff and landing path of aircraft be at least 250 feet above surrounding property and that structures for servicing aircraft must be at least 200 feet from a property line. It also changed some fencing requirements.

The legislation did not, however, change a requirement that restricts the airport's commercial operations to no more than 50 percent of the property. Planning department officials said at the time the changes would expedite improvements to private airports, without subjecting owners to a longer zoning appeal process that could crystallize public opposition.

In approving the legislation, county council members hailed it as an economic development tool to spur more general aviation opportunities in the county to attract some of the growing number of businesses that depend on such services.

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