A few weeks ago, a local developer's plan to turn Suburban Airport in Laurel into a townhouse development called RiverWood sounded unlikely.
The 54-acre airport on a sliver of land along Brock Bridge Road borders a flood plain. It would require major rezoning in an area teeming with development. And with small Washington-area airports hurting in the wake of post-Sept. 11 restrictions, county officials had pledged to keep the runway open.
But tomorrow, the Polm Cos. plan for 641 townhouses and condominiums is up for a possible vote by the Anne Arundel County Council, buoyed by a need for affordable housing - and Polm's shrewd marketing.
Though the seven-member council seemed unlikely to approve the proposal a few weeks ago, several members say they're undecided.
They're intrigued by the Millersville company's plan to build what it calls "work-force housing" - homes in the $190,000 to $300,000 range that Polm says will appeal to teachers, police officers and firefighters who can't afford to live in the county where they work.
"There is no one who will disagree that there is a need for more moderately priced housing," said councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican who said he hasn't committed either way on RiverWood. "It's almost a crisis."
While many opponents recognize the county's affordable-housing need, they question whether RiverWood can deliver.
Polm's Riverwood fliers are covered with photos of teachers, police officers and firefighters, but many of those workers don't earn enough for even the development's lowest-priced condominium.
"I live in a $160,000 home, and I can barely afford my mortgage," said Michael Mayo, an Anne Arundel County firefighter who lives in Annapolis. But Mayo doesn't oppose RiverWood. If they build it, he says, he hopes to win more part-time construction work to boost his $36,000 salary.
Tom Quattlebaum, chief executive of the Anne Arundel County Association of Realtors, called RiverWood "not the best of all worlds," but said "it's the best that's available."
His organization has joined the Annapolis-Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce in supporting the project, which Polm land acquisition director Andrew Zois said will have deed restrictions to require that homes are owner-occupied.
Even with that promise, some residents and pilots question the developer's tactics.
Tomorrow, Polm consultant John Pantelides is providing residents free food and parking at Loews Annapolis Hotel, as well as a shuttle bus to the council meeting.
Pantelides made a similar effort two years ago, when he tried to win rezoning for a Bestgate Road shopping center. He took 70 residents to dinner at an Italian restaurant, and donated $1,500 toward one of the area church's charities. Church elders later wrote to the county supporting the shopping center, though the rezoning effort eventually faltered.
Pantelides said RiverWood opponents along Brock Bridge also are organizing a bus to tomorrow's meeting.
"If they're getting a bus, is it not appropriate for us to get a bus?" Pantelides asked. "Sure, I'm going to give them something to eat, but to say that's buying somebody's vote when they're giving up seven hours of their time is outrageous."
Pantelides said Polm acquired the property in late fall and had been playing catch-up ever since. But some officials complain the developer circumvented the planning process.
Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat working on work-force housing legislation, said the small-area plan calls for denser developments, and RiverWood would add to the congestion.
Prince George's County Councilman Thomas E. Dernoga, whose district borders the airport, said he was concerned that no one informed him about the proposed road improvements.
Polm's tactics also have angered Suburban pilots, a tight-knit community that includes many Defense Department workers who live nearby.
If RiverWood doesn't pass, Polm said it will expand Suburban Airport from 65 to more than 300 planes and add a flight school, helicopter charters and more than 100 hangars. Polm's fliers say it won't improve Brock Bridge Road for the expanded airport.
"He's threatening this community, saying, 'If you don't accept this, I'm going to put in a big airport with jets,' and that's not the truth," said Suburban pilot Ron Shippee, a biochemist at the Pentagon.
At a meeting last month, Bruce Mundie, the Maryland Aviation Administration's director of regional aviation, said Suburban can't accommodate more hangars or planes, and noted that flight schools have been closing in the Air Defense Identification Zone - the 30 miles of airspace around Washington's major airports.
Suburban, which is within the zone, has been without its flight school since the school moved to Tipton Airport at Fort Meade shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when Suburban was shuttered for months.
Pantelides says the Suburban pilots "hijacked" Mundie for their own purposes, and Zois said the MAA official's remarks were "irresponsibly misspoken."
"Our contract is not contingent on rezoning for RiverWood. The simple truth of the matter is that we're buying the property regardless," Zois said. "If it has to be an airport, it makes sense we would do everything possible to maximize the potential of our investment. It is in no way meant to be a threat."
To pass its plan tomorrow, Polm needs a council member to introduce an amendment to the small-area plan and four council members to support it.
The task of introducing the bill would fall to two-term councilman Bill D. Burlison, who represents the area around Suburban. Late last week, the Odenton Democrat was still making his decision.
"I don't believe I have seen as bitterly contested an issue as this one has been and is going to be," Burlison said. "I haven't finally made up my mind."
That leaves four council members who say they're undecided, and one, Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks, who will abstain because he co-owns a plane at Suburban. Beidle and fellow Democrat Barbara D. Samorajczyk are against it.
But even if the residents don't like those odds, history shows they can't be counted out. In the last decade, the community hemmed in by highways and prisons has fended off a 900-bed homeless shelter, a $160 million football stadium and a 61,000-seat NASCAR racetrack.
"They are all people from someplace else, telling us how it's going to be," Russett activist Jeanne Mignon told a crowd of 250 RiverWood opponents last week. "And you're going to tell them how it's going to be. You're going to ask them to leave."