Some residents of a western Howard community are lobbying the County Council to allow more of their neighbors to land - and take off - in their back yards.
County zoning regulations allow three small airplanes to be stored by the eight property owners at Glenair, a residential airpark in Glenwood. That's because the community maintains a 100-foot setback on each side of its grassy runway. With a 200-foot setback, the code permits 12 airplanes.
Ella Atkins, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the difference between the two restrictions is arbitrary.
"If it's safe for one, it should be safe for 12," she said.
Atkins, who has lived in the park for almost four years, testified in favor of the change in September at a public hearing for the county's decennial rezoning process, but it was not included in the rezoning bill.
Western Howard Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said the council could consider the change during its legislative process.
"That's not a once-every-10-year kind of thing," he said.
"I don't want to make a decision now without understanding the full ramifications," Kittleman said later.
Operation of the airpark has been the subject of years of legal battles and opposition from neighbors. The Court of Appeals has ruled three times, most recently in 1993, said resident Ray Somerlock, one of the eight founders of the airpark, who purchased the approximately 45 acres of farmland in 1973.
Airstrips are allowed in Howard's rural and industrial zones on lots larger than 25 acres if landowners apply to the county for conditional-use permission. Several private airstrips exist in the western half of the county.
About 475 residential airparks, including four in Maryland, are registered with Living with Your Plane, an organization based near Tacoma, Wash., said its founder, Dave Sclair.
"We were just looking for a place where we could keep our planes near our house," said Somerlock, 65. "Drive out the front, fly out the back."
He sold his plane when his career took him away from the area. Now three of his neighbors own planes, so he can't store one at Glenair. Not everyone who lives at Glenair is a pilot, however, so there won't be a rash of plane purchases if the limit increases, Somerlock said.
Hearing of the proposed change, neighbors of the airstrip expressed fear for their safety.
Diane Bissell, a resident of Glenwood Estates for 24 years, said she has always opposed the airstrip. She has concerns about noise but said she is mostly worried about students at Glenelg High School, on nearby Burntwoods Road. "I don't want 12 airplanes there; I don't even want three," she said.
Somerlock said the flight pattern around the airstrip is to the south, which keeps planes away from the school. Glenair's homes lie between the school and the runway. Atkins said pilots agreed not to fly over the school or its fields when they applied to operate.
Atkins said she researched airplane noise and was able to show quantitatively that lawn tractors produce more noise than small planes.
The Maryland Aviation Administration certifies private airports. Atkins said Glenair has always passed that review.
Atkins said the county's additional side setback requirement for up to 12 planes does not improve safety. She compared the situation to that of pedestrians on a sidewalk as she drives to College Park on U.S. 1.
"There are people walking 5 feet next to me [while I am ] driving 40 miles an hour," Atkins said.
More critical, she said, is the amount of room allowed for approach or departure areas. Glenair's runway is 2,200 feet long, with 500 feet on each end for overrun, which she said is more than enough.
"The airport was built to be safe," Atkins said. "None of us wanted to crash when we were flying."