High hopes accompany new era for Tipton Airport; Arundel takes over cleaned Ft. Meade site


With a few strokes of the pen and the roar of an airplane engine, it was "wheels up" and a long-awaited liftoff for Tipton Airport yesterday.

After nearly a decade of delay from the cleanup of explosives and other hazardous materials, Anne Arundel County officially took control of Fort Meade's airport, which lies in the heart of the bustling Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Amid the day's ceremonies, politicians and business leaders praised the 346-acre airport's potential to spark economic growth in the region, like the slightly larger Frederick Municipal Airport, which generates $60 million annually. As general aviation airports are gobbled up by developers eager to build homes and stores, the takeover of Tipton provides a rare opportunity for the county, they noted.

"In an area like this, it'd be impossible to build an airport from scratch. Tipton is probably the last chance for an airport in this area of town," said Drew Steketee, vice president for communications for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which is based in Frederick and has 350,000 members.

County Executive Janet S. Owens joined Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, county councilmen, Army brass and environmental officials on the airport tarmac to sign documents removing Tipton Airport from the list of the nation's worst pollution sites and officially opening the airport.

They told the crowd of about 150 people about the cooperation that transformed a source of contaminated soil and unexploded ordnance into an environmentally safe strip of land. Owens predicted the property would be "an economic boon to Anne Arundel County."

"The environment is clean," said Timothy Fields Jr., assistant administrator of solid waste at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington.

Long wait

Anne Arundel County officials have been trying to turn the Army airfield into a general aviation airport for nearly a decade.

Eleven years ago, Congress ordered the Army to get rid of the parcel, along with 8,100 acres that became part of the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. In the early 1990s, the county began pressing for control of the airport.

But pollution problems and bureaucratic issues at the state, local and federal levels stretched the process into a years-long ordeal.

Tipton had been used as munitions training ground and a landfill before the airfield was built in 1960. During a cleanup in 1995, contractors found thousands of unexploded ordnance, including hand grenades, mortar shells and anti-tank rockets.

In July 1998, just as the Army was poised to transfer the land to county officials, contamination in other sections of Fort Meade pushed the base onto the EPA's Superfund list -- the nation's worst pollution sites.

Because of the earlier cleanup and the public interest in the airport, EPA officials later decided to carve out the Tipton property and remove it from the list so that the county could go ahead with its plans for an airport. The parcel lies on the south side of the base just below its Route 32 border.

To speed the county's possession, the EPA allowed a 25-year lease of the facility in May, which permitted crews to repair the runway and renovate the operations building. Now that the airport is off the Superfund list, county officials expect the deed transfer to take place early next year.

Although it has taken Fort Meade 11 years to comply with the Congress' order, Tipton holds the EPA record at 16 months for shortest stay on the Superfund list, officials said.

At the end of yesterday's ceremony, a plane lifted off the runway with a banner announcing the airport opening trailing behind it. A few other planes were moving along the taxiway, taking off to circle overhead and land.

Converted airports

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Tipton is one of 34 military airfields nationwide being converted for civilian use. With yesterday's ceremony, 19 have completed the transformation.

"Generally, it's the only place we get new airports from," said Leonard C. Sandelli with the FAA military airport program.

Nationwide, general aviation airports are closing at the rate of about one a week, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Today, about 13,000 airports exist in the country, many of them private airstrips; about 5,000 are public, Steketee said.

More and more often, the suburbs are encroaching upon once-rural airstrips, driving up property values and taxes -- and bringing neighbors who dislike the buzzing of single-engine, twin-engine and turbo propeller planes.

But at the same time, general aviation has been at the heart of growing businesses. About 66 percent of all general aviation flying is for business or commercial purposes, including flight instruction, Steketee said. Companies use small planes to transport materials and send employees on business trips.

"General aviation is producing more airplanes now than they have since 1970," said Glenn Parker, chairman of the quasi-governmental Tipton Airport Authority. "It's not a lack of interest in general aviation [that has airports closing], it's that the developers are gobbling up the land. There's no danger of that happening to us."

Frederick Municipal Airport, which is slightly larger and about 70 miles away, is also along major routes to Washington and Baltimore and the site of several aviation-related industries. According to airport manager Charles M. Abell, Frederick generates more than $60 million in revenue annually, including $2 million in taxes.

"There are tons of businesses in the corridor and Route 1 that are likely to use air transportation," Steketee said. "That's why Tipton is so exciting, because it's right in between D.C. and Baltimore. Pilots would say it's a good piece of concrete."

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