The Board of County Commissioners last week gave themselves a Sept. 29 deadline on making a decision on whether to proceed with a $74 million expansion of Carroll County Regional Airport.
The expansion plan has been studied for years, and would include extending the runway from its present length of 5,100 feet to 6,400 feet to accommodate larger aircraft.
At a Sept. 1 meeting in the County Office Building in Westminster, staff briefed the commissioners on an issue that many consider was a key issue in last year's commissioner elections — which saw an entirely new board elected.
Staff told commissioners that if the board were to move forward with the expansion, all but about 2.5 percent of the $74 million cost would be paid by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration.
Even so, questions and comments from the commissioners reflected skepticism about whether or not the expansion would be an efficient engine for future economic development in the county.
The commissioners said that in making a decision, the board will take into account opposition to the expansion from a number of residents living near the airport.
Complaints have mostly centered on noise and related quality of life issues, along with suspicions that the expansion — even with the county's limited financial contribution — would be a case of chasing good money with bad.
"The last expansion we had in the 1990s was promised to attract jobs," said Westminster resident Mary Kowalski, who herself was a 2010 commissioner candidate, but lost in the primary. "But it has only sunk the airport and the county deeper in debt and made us more dependent on federal government."
The expansion would include lengthening the runway to accommodate larger aircraft, classified as C-III craft.
Under FAA standards, the airport's runway and its approach lanes are currently configured to safely accommodate C-II aircraft, with wing spans ranging from 49 to 78 feet.
With the proposed expansion the airport could safely handle C-III aircraft, which have wing spans of 79 to 118 feet.
County Department of Public Works Director Tom Rio, along with airport manager Joe McKelvy, public works employee Jeff Topper and David Jones, a consultant with Delta Airport Consultants Inc., cited studies showing the potential economic benefits of expansion.
Rio and Jones said studies project the expansion would bring increased in revenues from fuel sales, user fees and hangar rentals to the county's airport enterprise fund.
Yet, nearly all the commissioners expressed doubt that the projections were tangible enough to justify an expansion.
If the board votes not to proceed, the airport could revert to C-II status — a move that planners said would trigger the cost of a new master plan and another impact study, since the most recent study determined the impact of expanding to C-III status.
Also, Rio and Jones said without the expansion, it's likely some aviation-related companies now at the airport may leave, since their future operations might depend on the use of C-III aircraft.
Right of refusal?
Staff told the commissioners that the airport also carries an added wrinkle: Because the facility is considered a "public use" airport, FAA guidelines say it cannot, in a sense, turn C-III aircraft away.
Presently, C-III aircraft can use the airport, but only on a limited basis — meaning that if a company at the airport says it needs C-III aircraft, the airport could be forced to expand to C-III status.
And, if there are more than 500 C-III "operations" at the airport in a given year, the FAA could withhold funds if the county decides not to expand it.
District 5 Commissioner Doug Howard, who serves as president of the board, asked it if might be possible to impose a prohibitively high landing fee on C-III aircraft — to deter CIII users from wanting to land here.
Jones said it might work, but such fee are reviewed by the FAA to determine if they are fair and reasonable.
The board made no decisions at last week's session, but members said they would reach a verdict on the expansion by Sept. 29.
A timeline and additional details on the expansion proposal may be found at ccgovernment.carr.org/ccg/airport/default.asp and at http://www.ccramasterplan.com/news.php.