The battle over the future of the Harford County Airport reached the Harford County Council Tuesday night as the council, sitting as the Board of Zoning Appeals, heard from those for and against a proposed expansion of the airport.
The proposal, which includes consolidating three shorter runways in one that's 3,200 feet long, was approved by a Harford County zoning hearing examiner, a decision that brought the matter to the county council.
A Harford County attorney, working on behalf of Churchville area residents who would be affected by the proposed expansion of the Harford County Airport, urged the council to reverse the zoning hearing examiner's decision.
"This board must require full information from the applicant, for them to contend that they have met their burden for a special exception and a variance being granted," People's Counsel Brian Young told the council.
Council President Billy Boniface, who has testified that his horse farm near the airport would be harmed by the airport expansion, recused himself from Tuesday's proceedings. Richard Slutzky, vice president of the council, presided. The council did not reach a decision.
"We will address it at a future council meeting," Slutzky said.
Young and Bel Air-area resident John Mallamo argued in favoring of having the Board of Appeals remand the decision issued by Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe in April.
"Put simply, at the completion of the project, the airport will still be a privately-owned, publicly-funded enterprise for the benefit of the owners' financial position at the expense of those in opposition," Mallamo argued.
Kahoe granted the request of the Harford County Airport Owners Group Inc. for a special exception to operate the airport and a variance to disturb the nearby 75-foot Natural Resource District buffer as part of the expansion.
The owners of the airport, which is in the 3500 block of Aldino Road and has hosted airplanes since the early 1940s, plan to combine the facility's three runways into one 3,200-foot-long, north-south runway which would be 75 feet wide.
They have requested grant funds from the Maryland Aviation Administration to support the expansion, including the improvements to the airport and purchasing additional land.
The land is zoned for agricultural and general industrial uses, and the Natural Resource District buffer must be disturbed to build the extended runway, according to the applicant.
The airport has three runways, including one paved and two turf runways, that are angled in different directions.
There are about 50 airplanes stored at the Harford County Airport. Kevin Hess, the airport manager, testified during zoning hearings in December of 2013 and January of 2014 that he receives a call at least once a month from someone who wants to lease hangar space.
Hess said the airport owners plan to build enough hangar space for 60 planes.
Kahoe's report includes economic impact data from the Maryland Aviation Administration, which shows that the airport handled 17,840 takeoffs and landings during 2013, a decrease from a peak of 35,000 a year from 2001 to 2007.
Opponents have expressed concerns about the negative impacts to nearby farms such as those operated by Boniface and Robert Tibbs, as well as increased noise and aircraft traffic, the security of the aircraft, the potential for jets at an airport that traditionally serves propeller-driven airplanes, and increased storm water runoff.
Mallamo argued that, if Harford County officials had "any serious interest" in the airport, they could establish an airport district on land reserved for that purpose.
"What do affected residents get?" he asked. "A publicly-funded, privately-owned, public nuisance; this proposed airport operation is not now – and never will be – compatible with the proposed location."
He and Young said the board should apply the Maryland Court of Appeals' ruling in the 1981 special exception case Schultz v. Pritts, in which Judge Rita Davidson stated a special exception request should be denied, if that special use would harm "unique and different" aspects of the surrounding area, aspects that would not be in another part of the zone.
Young cited unique features such as the level terrain of the area and the nearby horse breeding and livestock operations.
Bel Air attorney John Gessner, who is representing the applicants, noted the Schultz standard would not apply to the airport expansion case, and stressed Kahoe had acknowledged that in his ruling.
"There wasn't a shred of evidence that indicates that this property is any way unique," Gessner said.
Kahoe said that homes can be found all around the agricultural zone, as well as livestock and horse breeding operations.
"No particular location within the Harford County Agricultural District was identified that did not have these sorts of characteristics," Kahoe wrote. "While perhaps such locations exist, it is not the burden of the Applicant to prove that they do not exist."
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Gessner told board members that "I believe the hearing examiner got it exactly right; I don't believe a remand is necessary or appropriate."
Gessner also objected to Mallamo's appearance before the board, which he objected to during the initial hearings.
"I didn't believe he showed the requisite standing to participate," Gessner explained Tuesday. "I renew that objection now and ask that his argument here this evening be stricken and not considered."
Slutzky told Gessner his objection will be taken under consideration and be addressed "when we are moving toward a decision on this case."
In response to a question from Councilman Chad Shrodes about jets using the longer runway, Gessner said the airport cannot turn away jet traffic even today, but jets are not anticipated.
He noted jet pilots typically fly in and out of airports that have longer runways than the 3,200 feet proposed for Harford County, but airport officials hope to attract propeller-driven corporate aircraft.
"It's extremely unlikely that someone's going to want to fly a jet into this airport," he explained. "It just doesn't make sense."