Aviation experts fear that Anne Arundel and Howard counties' delay in taking over Tipton Army Airfield could lead to expensive maintenance problems.
Jon Buck, A Maryland Aviation Administration officer, said yesterday that asphalt in the runways could crack and electronic gear could fail if the airport is not properly maintained during the time it is closed while the Army clears unexploded shells and environmental hazards from the land.
The delay "is going to hurt in the long run," he said. "The counties will have to make a much greater effort to open it than they would have to do it now."
The counties were to take over the airport Oct. 1 and operate it as a civilian airport, but officials from both counties abruptly announced on Tuesday that they would delay the opening six to 18 months because the Army had failed to remove unexploded artillery shells and liability issues remained unsettled.
Officials from both counties wanted written guarantees that the Army would pay for damages or cleanup costs for environmental problems discovered after the counties take over.
Capt. Joseph Piek, an Army spokesman, said yesterday that "it would not be wise" to allow the airport to deteriorate.
But county officials were wary.
"If it's not maintained to a standard we can agree to, that's an additional cost for us when we go in," Sam Minnitte, project manager for Anne Arundel County, said yesterday after meeting with Col. David H. Toops, the Fort Meade commander.
Last year, Anne Arundel and Howard counties agreed to lease the 366-acre site from the Army and operate it because the Department of Defense had ordered the Army to give up the airport to reduce military spending. The counties would become the airport owners and form a bi-county authority to run it after the cleanup.
The closure also has forced a U.S. Army Reserve Chinook helicopter unit based at Tipton to move to Fort Eustis, Va., taking away about 40 civilian jobs and 260 soldiers. The move will mean a loss in revenue for the counties because the unit would have bought more than a million gallons of jet fuel a year from the airport, said John W. Lucas, the Tipton airport manager, who was hired by the counties last month.
Pilots say they will wait for the airport.
"We're disappointed, but we're optimistic about it fulfilling its role as a civilian airport," said Bill Dunn, vice president of regional affairs with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick.
Mr. Dunn, whose organization has monitored the conversion of about 30 airports from military to civilian use, said it is not unusual to find environmental problems and that conversion process often takes longer than expected.
He said he hopes the Army keeps Tipton in good shape while it is unused.
"If we see something not occurring, we'll get involved, we'll hold their feet to the fire," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lucas said he will continue to take reservations from pilots who want to keep their airplanes at Tipton. Thirty pilots already have reserved spaces.
"My concern was, on one hand we were going too fast, on the other hand we don't get anything done by being over cautious," he said. "Now we'll use the time wisely to make a better transition."