After nearly a dozen public meetings, about 19 hours of testimony, and a $6,000 engineering study, local officials said yesterday that Sprint PCS's plans to build a telecommunications tower north of Westminster could jeopardize the future of the Carroll County airport -- the linchpin of local development efforts.
To make the airport more attractive as a base for corporate jets, the county has spent $3.3 million building seven corporate hangars and is working to speed the installation of a Global Positioning System satellite link, which would guide aircraft in inclement weather.
"If this tower is built, it may wipe out our chances of getting that system," airport manager Steve Brown said of Sprint's plans to build a 192-foot galvanized steel tower on farmland at 1236 Baugher Road, 1.6 miles west of Jack B. Poage Carroll County Regional Airport. "Corporations are not going to rent those hangars if they can't land there.
"Essentially, we would have spent $3.3 million to build warehouses."
The tower could obstruct the flight path of a westerly runway that county officials hope to build.
Despite the opposition -- which included a study that suggested Sprint place antennas on water towers and other structures instead of building towers -- the three-member county Board of Zoning approved Sprint's plans by a vote of 2-to-1. But it added a condition that the tower must be removed if it impedes expansion or operations at the airport.
Under the board's ruling, the Federal Aviation Administration and county airport officials have the authority to determine whether the tower hinders the airport.
"There is no question about the need for the tower, but the airport is also important," said board chairman Karl V. Reichlin. "I think this gives us a compromise."
Board member Ronald Hoff voted against the telecommunications giant: "If it wasn't for the airport, I'd say this is an excellent spot. But the airport was there first. I feel we need to put Sprint in a position where they need to find a new location now, rather than five or 10 years down the road."
Tower opponent Terri McIntyre said she would immediately appeal the board's decision to Carroll County Circuit Court.
In his testimony against the tower, Brown asked the board to ban tall structures within a three-mile radius of the airport -- as required by state regulations -- and presented the panel with a letter from the county commissioners, confirming their opposition to the tower.
"Federal regulations that require equal treatment might force the county into approving other tower permit applications the same distance from [the airport] as the Sprint tower," the commissioners wrote. "Towers or other tall structures would be detrimental to the economic viability of the county's airport."
Yesterday's was the third hearing on the structure, one of three that Sprint hopes to build to provide wireless phone service in the Westminster area. A handful of tower opponents attended the hearings, testifying that they feared the tower would lower property values and harm the county's rural atmosphere.
Neighboring residents have spent numerous hours and thousands of dollars on their battle since August, when the towers were proposed. They won a small victory in February, when the commissioners adopted regulations requiring communications companies to pay for an independent study to prove the necessity of each tower they wish to build.
However, the new restriction applies only to towers proposed after Sept. 1, 1999 -- meaning the Sprint towers are not affected by the regulations.
County officials consider the airport a key to economic development efforts. With federal and state grants, the county has built a mile-long runway and a fuel storage system in hope of attracting small jet traffic from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
In 1998, the commissioners entered into a contract with Hangar Corp. of America to build seven hangars for corporate jets. Four of the hangars have passed county inspection, but none has a paying tenant.
As home to one of the state's 34 small regional airports, Carroll could qualify for additional grants from the Maryland Aviation Administration.
The administration plans to spend $300,000 on runway maintenance and improvements, and as much as $75,000 in a new marketing campaign. The goal is to keep small airports in small towns from going out of business, hoping they can become economic engines for jobs and tax revenue proportionate to what big airports produce for big cities.
"We believe the county will see at least $1,000 a day in rental revenue from those corporate hangars and an additional $250,000 in fuel revenue," Brown, the airport manager, told the zoning appeals board. "We didn't invest all that money in the airport for the little fellow. We made that investment for the business guy."