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Harford council approves zoning exception for airport expansion

Sitting as the board of appeals, the Harford County Council Tuesday night approved a zoning special exception and a variance that will permit a major expansion of the Harford County Airport near Churchville.

The council's action opens the door for the Harford County Airport Owners Group Inc. to construct a larger runway and new hangars and to make other improvements to the public use airport off Route 156 in Aldino.

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The airport owners plan to construct a 3,200 foot long, 75-foot wide paved runway and adjoining taxiways to replace the existing 2,000 foot long, 35-foot wide runway and two smaller grass runways. In addition, the new runway will be oriented north-south, rather than east-west like the existing runway.

In order to build the new runway and make other improvements, the owner was required to obtain a special exception under the zoning code that was upgraded in the past three years specifically with the expansion of the Harford County Airport in mind. A variance also was required to disturb non-tidal wetlands in an area at one end of the proposed new runway.

Robert Kahoe, the council's chief zoning hearing examiner, approved the special exception and variance in an opinion released in mid-April. His decision, which imposes screening, landscaping, storage and ground operation requirements, was appealed for final review of the council, as board of appeals, by one an opponent of the expansion, John Mallamo.

A number of people living around the airport spoke against the planned expansion, both in hearings before Kahoe last winter and in a final argument session the council/appeals board held Sept. 2.

Among the opponents was Council President Billy Boniface, who testified at the winter hearings that his horse farm in Darlington could be adversely affected by increased flights in and out of the airport, which had 17,840 movements in 2013 and is expected to have more once the expansion is completed. Like many of those who spoke against the expansion, Boniface said he fears it could lead to use by noisier jet aircraft, even though the airport owners said they did not design the expansion to attract that business.

Boniface recused himself from participating in the Sept. 2 session before the council. Tuesday night, he stepped down from the council dais and turned the session over to Councilman Dick Slutzky, the council vice president, to conduct the appeals board vote and took a seat in the audience.

The council then voted 5 to 1 to accept the hearing examiner's opinion. Councilman Chad Shrodes, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said while "I support safe and modern airports," he did not like it that the local governing body is unable by law to impose operating conditions on public use airports, as such powers are controlled by the Maryland Aviation Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Neither the type of aircraft or the number can be restricted by a local government," said Shrodes, noting that he, like many of the opponents, is concerned about future jet aircraft using the facility. "As I cannot do that [restrict use], I will vote 'no'," he said.

Councilman James McMahan, a former licensed pilot, pointed out, however, that any aircraft in a mayday distress situation could choose to land at Harford County Airport, regardless of his or her craft, if they felt they could do so safely to save lives. He also noted the testimony before the hearing examiner disclosed the wetlands that will be disturbed "are not really wetlands."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti called the case "so unusual as far as the complexity of state and federal laws" and noted the council/appeals board could do little to mediate "conflicting uses" between the neighborhood and the airport, something she said has occurred in other board of appeals cases involving large developments.

Opponents still have the avenue of appealing Tuesday's final decision to Circuit Court.

"I don't think this was the end of it," Robert Tibbs, a beef cattle farmer who lives near the airport and who has testified against the proposed expansion, said following the council's vote.

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