A community that took off

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KENT ISLAND - The vast green expanse behind the homes with a view isn't the 17th fairway. It's an airstrip.

The mostly retired residents of Kentmorr spend their days rebuilding airplanes in their oversized garages or fiddling with the engines. Once a week, they mow the 16 1/2 -acre grass landing field.

And when they need a break from that, they take to the runway just beyond their back yards - and then to the skies.

New security rules make flying a small aircraft harder than it used to be. But for those who fly, says pilot Joel A. Levin, living in one of the country's first residential airports is "about as good as it can get."

The Kentmorr Airpark was founded in 1945, when Nathan "Bill" Morris, an engineer working in Silver Spring, was looking for a weekend home he could reach with his small private plane.

He considered buying property in Nantucket, but decided Massachusetts was too far away. "On the way back, I got off course a little bit and I crossed over Kent Island. I thought, 'This looks like a nice place,' " Morris, now 96, said recently. Kent Island was fairly remote then; the Bay Bridge didn't open until 1952.

Morris told a local broker he wanted "a couple of acres," but learned that land wasn't sold in such small parcels. He would need to buy an entire farm. He ended up with Kentmorr's 140 acres on the Chesapeake Bay, a potato field sitting where the runway is now.

"It's gone on from there," he said. Over time, his pilot friends wanted to bring their planes to his airport on the Eastern Shore, so he sold off lots. They built homes that don't look much different from those in any suburban development.

These stand out only because of their enormous garages, in some cases nearly as big as the houses to which they are attached. The garages have a second set of doors facing the airstrip - giant, hangar doors that open up to let the planes drive straight out to the runway.

For those who don't fly - mostly they are boaters - there are houses across the street with plain old garages and a marina down the way.

They call Kentmorr an airport, but their definition is a little different from most. There is no terminal building, no lights on the runway, no baggage screeners. There is simply the grass strip and a few signs saying which side is best for taxiing.

In 1950, Jack McCarthy used to fly to Kentmorr and go swimming off the end of the runway. He wanted to buy property, but Morris was selling lots for $500 apiece - a king's ransom at the time. McCarthy worked back then as a tile setter's helper; the tile setter, he recalls, made $500 a month and supported a family of four. "Real estate prices kept me out until 1987," said McCarthy, now 70 and a retired pilot for USAir.

These days, he is building a World War I biplane in his garage - it is a shell of steel tubing and wood - and has been for 2 1/2 years. "It should fly in four," he said. Later he upped his prediction to 4 1/2 years, then five.

Neighbor Roger Guest, a 69-year-old retired federal worker who is considered the manager of the airport, smiled: "We operate on the principle that the good Lord won't take you until your work is done."

Kentmorr was long considered the first residential airport community in the country, though recently residents learned of one on the West Coast that beat them by a couple of years. Now they just call themselves "one of the first." There are believed to be about 500 such communities now.

The pilots of Kentmorr all chose to live out here for the same reason: the chance to fly on a whim.

But this year, life has become a little less idyllic, a lot less spontaneous. Whereas once it was as easy to fly here as it is to drive to the corner for a gallon of milk, that is no longer the case.

"It used to be we could come and go as we pleased, just like you get in your automobile and go to the store," Guest said. "[Now] you have to tell them where you're going and when you're going. It's a chore."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the airport is considered too close to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. Tightened restrictions imposed in February mean that to fly anywhere, Kentmorr's pilots must file a flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration and get clearance from air traffic controllers. They must get a radio code that allows controllers to know exactly where a plane is at all times. If they fail to follow those guidelines - and this happens - the military will scramble a plane or a helicopter to track down the violator.

Sometimes the phone lines to get permission are tied up and it can take an hour or more to get through, pilots said. Some have stopped trying.

"It's just too much of a headache to go flying," said Morris, though he plans to fly to North Carolina this week. He flew across the Atlantic as recently as 1994.

Some planes can't fly at all anymore. Those without electrical systems or radios are not allowed in the air under the new restrictions.

McCarthy's cherry-red Pietenpol Air Camper fell into that category. He spent $7,000 for the materials to build the plane in 1997. He had to spend $5,000 this year on a radio so he could continue to fly it.

"I used to fly 100 hours a year," he said. "So far this year I've flown one hour and a half. It's too much trouble to crank it up."

The pilots worry about what the restrictions have done to the value of their property. They wonder when they can return to flying over to Cambridge for lunch or to New Jersey to buy paint for their planes.

Still, nothing has kept people from stopping by, as often as once a week, to inquire whether any of the houses are on the market. That's how the youngest in the group - 56-year-old engineer S.V. "Vince" Massimini - ended up living here, 70 miles from his office in McLean, Va. He spotted a "for sale" sign when he flew in one day and convinced his wife they needed a house nowhere near their jobs.

One of the widows in the neighborhood keeps the names of interested people in her estate file, so that when she passes away her children will know who they can sell to.

Said Bill Meserole, 74, resident and retired attorney: "People see it and say, 'It's for me.' "

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