Members fret over Balto. Co. plans to close Essex Skypark

Tom Katzenberger calls the Essex Skypark "a blue-collar airport" — a place where the pilots have dirt under their fingernails.

"All of us change our own oil," said Katzenberger, who owns a small concrete construction company and flies a 1996 Maule, a four-seat airplane. "All of us fix our own flats."

Katzenberger and other members of the Essex Skypark Association recently learned that the waterfront airport could be lost, and with it an aviation tradition that they say they couldn't afford to continue elsewhere. Members have no plans to leave — and they're gearing up for a fight.

Baltimore County officials have developed a plan to clear the site's 2,000-foot runway and its hand-built hangars, planting the area with oak and maple trees to improve water quality, protect native species and replace forests destroyed by development elsewhere in the county.

The local government has owned the property since 2000, when it spent $2.1 million to buy more than 500 acres on the Back River Neck Peninsula from the Shapiro family through the Maryland Environmental Trust. Since then, the airport has leased land from the county just as it did from the previous owners.

"[The airport] is a 40-acre doughnut hole in the middle of a 500-acre forest," said Vince Gardina, director of the county's environmental department.

County officials say they never agreed to let the skypark association stay permanently and that they expected the group to eventually leave after the county bought the site.

The group now has five years to move or close the skypark.

"The airport's woven into the fabric of the community," Katzenberger said. "I don't think the county is aware of how passionate we are."

He said nearby Martin State Airport, which provides an array of services to pilots — including a lounge with recliners and a big-screen TV, and rides to local hotels and restaurants — is geared toward people with more money.

Martin State is far larger, with a 7,000-foot runway and about 270 aircraft, including corporate jets and military aircraft, spokesman Jonathan Dean said. A T-hangar costs $195 a month to rent, compared with $95 at the Essex Skypark. Pilots can't perform major maintenance work on their planes at Martin State.

The atmosphere at Essex, which has 46 aircraft, is "much more laid back," said skypark association president Ron Lane. Pilots enjoy fixing their own planes. They gather for coffee in a cottage-like building where model airplanes dangle from the ceiling.

Association senior trustee Max Lichty learned to fly at the Essex airport in 1959. The 74-year-old retired Bethlehem Steel machinist is still at it today, piloting a 1946 refurbished Aeronca that took him more than two years to build.

"On a fixed income, this is one of the few airports that I can afford," Lichty said.

The airport, which opened in 1942, goes hand in hand with the area's aviation history, the skypark group contends. During World War II, the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s plant, where workers built the China Clipper and B-26 bombers among other aircraft, spurred rapid population growth in Middle River and Essex.

Aviation buffs have feared that the county would want the skypark property before, but this is the first time officials have spelled out a plan for the land, Katzenberger said.

Last year, the association failed to give 120 days' notice that it wanted to renew its five-year lease, in what members say was a clerical error. Then, in a letter sent to association members in November, a county attorney said the county would put them on a month-to-month lease and would not renew the association's five-year lease until the members turned over a relocation plan.

"The county purchased the property in order to permanently protect the exemplary forest, wetlands and buffers that are present," the letter states. "We now wish to enhance these natural resources, and significantly improve water quality in the adjoining Back River, by converting the area occupied by the skypark to a forested state."

The skypark group regularly talks with county officials about issues such as a project to stop erosion along the shoreline, and the county had not indicated its plans before sending the letter, association members said.

Long ago, the paved runway and grassy field were farmland. An aviation enthusiast named William Diffendahl bought property for the field in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lane said.

Today, the area is important to the county's forest management plan, Gardina said. Planting trees would protect birds and other wildlife.

The county also could generate revenue by charging developers who clear forests elsewhere to plant at the peninsula site in what's known as a "forest mitigation bank," Gardina said.

And removing impervious surfaces and reforesting the area also would help the county meet some of its obligations under requirements that Maryland and other states cut pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, he said.

Environmental protection was the reason the county bought the land, Gardina said.

"The airport happened to be there, and at the time, they made a decision to allow them to continue," Gardina said. "And at this point, we're trying to deal with multiple environmental issues, including the Chesapeake Bay watershed issues, as well as the fragmented forest."

The skypark group says it has taken care of the land and that the surrounding neighborhoods have embraced the site. Local kids learn to fly there. Families gather for an annual fly-in called Wings and Wheels every September. Boy Scouts camp there, and volunteer firefighters have used the site for training.

Carl Maynard, president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Community Association, said neighbors support the skypark, as long as the group takes care of the land and doesn't expand.

"The skypark itself lends that atmosphere of the old, country-type feeling down here," Maynard said.

Skypark association members believe an easement signed by the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Shapiro family in 2000 indicates that the family wanted the airport to stay. The document exempts the airport from a prohibition against commercial activities on the property.

County officials say they have no legal obligation to keep the skypark open. Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, said the group let its lease lapse, adding that the officials believe they are giving members plenty of time to move.

"Five years by anybody's standards, I think, would be a very fair time frame to find an alternate location," Mohler said.

Katzenberger called the idea of finding another location for the skypark "ridiculous."

"If you told any community, 'We're going to put an airport in,' they would probably be up in arms," he said. "I don't think we could find land, and I don't think Baltimore County would give us the zoning."

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