In three years, Anne Arundel County has spent approximately $300,000 to run an airport that has yet to open.
Continuing environmental snags and red tape have pushed the opening day of Tipton Airport, a former military airfield at Fort Meade, to an indefinite "this year."
But the County Council will decide tomorrow whether to approve the lease of the property and eventual transfer of title from the Army to the county, which means planes could be taking off and landing at Tipton by the end of the year.
The lease will cover only three hangars and a parking lot until the Army clears the rest of the airport, which pilots from around the state are eager to use.
"They are probably going to have a crowd waiting to get in there shortly after they open," said Bruce Mundie, director of regional aviation assistance with the Maryland Aviation Administration.
When county officials told the Army in 1994 they would like to take over the airport, which was to be closed as part of military cuts, they expected to simply take control of a facility that had been operating since 1960: The Army would halt military operations in September 1995, and the field would reopen in October 1995 as a civilian general aviation airport.
But the transfer has been anything but simple.
Technicians have combed most of the field's 366 acres for unexploded shells, fuses and other devices left from the years when Fort Meade was a training base, and the land Tipton occupies was an artillery firing range. The tedious cleanup, which involved locating and destroying thousands of items, was completed a year ago.
But the environmental problems are not over.
The ordnance sweepers didn't attempt to remove items that might lie at the bottom of the Little Patuxent River, which crosses the property, or that may be buried near state roads that intersect near the northwest corner of the site.
The property also encompasses three landfills, one between the runway and hangar pavement, and two on the outskirts of the property.
"We don't know exactly what's in those landfills," said Sam Minnitte, project manager and chief of staff for County Executive John G. Gary.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that all of Fort Meade, including Tipton, be placed on the Superfund list, the federal program that directs cleanups at the nation's worst toxic contamination sites.
The lengthy cleanup and the specter of the airport being branded a Superfund site is exasperating for pilots and officials waiting for the airport to open.
Mostly clean airport
"It's sort of astounding to me that we go through this," said County Council Chairman Bert L. Rice, who flew helicopters in and out of the airfield from 1982 to 1984 before retiring from the Army. He said he would like to see Tipton excluded from the Superfund process, or at least have one of the landfills sectioned off so the cleanup would not interfere with the airport.
"Tipton, for the most part, is a clean airport," Minnitte said. "It sounds horrendous, but it truly is not."
Most of the $300,000 the county has spent in the past three years has gone to pay an airport manager and consultants and for other costs, according to Minnitte. Another $1.4 million has been appropriated for improvements at the site.
A six-year plan of improvements to the hangars, administration building and runways will cost about $47.5 million, much of which could come from Federal Aviation Administration grants, according to John Lucas, airport manager.
The delay will not hurt Tipton's chances for success, said Mundie of the Maryland Aviation Administration. Airports in the state that are in convenient locations near populated areas are generally filled to capacity, he said. Tipton is about two miles from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and about halfway between Baltimore and Washington.
"The demand is always going to be there. The sooner we get it open, the better off we'll be," Mundie said.
Lucas, hired by the county in 1995 to manage Tipton, agrees. He has 81 aircraft owners on a waiting list for space at the airport.
First to call
Frenis Hoffman was the first to call in May 1995 after he read a newspaper article about the county's plan to open a general aviation airport at Tipton. Hoffman, a Howard County resident and owner of a fast-food restaurant, has his Beechcraft Sierra tied down at Frederick Municipal Airport.
But Hoffman, who lives in Woodbine/Lisbon, would like hangar space at Tipton when it opens.
"It's only 15 minutes from my home," he said. "I can get there in a hurry so I can get up and fly around and do what I want to do."
Hoffman is also interested in opening a restaurant or other business at Tipton.
The council meets at 7 p.m. in the Arundel Center.
Pub Date: 5/31/98