Organized resident opposition to the proposed runway expansion for the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster will be weighed against potential economic benefits as the county commissioners consider a plan for adoption June 12.
The commissioners have to choose among four options for the airport. Consultants from United Research Services (URS) have recommended relocating the runway 250 feet west and 600 feet north - a $56 million option. Other options include leaving the runaway as is, which would require $8.7 million in surface improvements, extending the existing runway for $42.8 million, or relocating it just 375 feet west at $59.3 million.
About $86.8 million has been budgeted for the expansion of the 5,100-foot runway and related upgrades, $71.6 million of which is expected to come from the Federal Aviation Administration, officials said. Private clients could contribute an additional $9.5 million to lease corporate hangars, according to the county's budget projections.
"People are still totally misunderstanding: This is not property tax or income tax money," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said of the funding.
But many of the 100-plus residents gathered at Carroll Community College for a contentious public hearing Wednesday night expressed numerous misgivings. Applause erupted in the Scott Center audience when most of the 40-some residents who testified condemned the project.
Concerned residents said an airport expansion would bring noise pollution and safety concerns that would compromise their rural quality of life. Opponents pinned yellow squares to their shirts that read in black letters: "NO airport expansion."
Some opponents said that federal and state funding for such a project is an unjust form of corporate welfare, since commercial fliers are charged taxes and fees to pay for expansions at smaller airports that primarily service private aircraft, charters and corporate jets.
The Carroll Joint Neighborhood Association gathered signatures from more than 1,000 residents on a petition that asks the county commissioners to slash the runway expansion as the county updates the 20-year airport master plan. The association is led by homeowners who live in the vicinity of the airport.
Since they used to live near the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, John and Betty Stup, now Union Bridge residents, said they know firsthand the noise that low-flying planes create.
Local activist Rebekah Orenstein shared concerns that increased airport traffic would make life unsafe for the residents of Pennsylvania Avenue, which becomes Route 97 enroute to the airport.
"It is basically a two-lane country road serving an industrial center," Orenstein said of the road. "People are tragically losing their lives on that road, and now you're going to throw on more traffic?"
Some residents who spoke at the hearing called for relocating the airport to a more isolated part of the county and building residential development at its current site in Westminster.
Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer later dismissed that suggestion as hyperbole used to make a point.
When Zimmer ran for commissioner last summer, he aligned himself with anti-expansion candidate Mary Kowalski, whose family has lived near the airport for decades. Since his election, Zimmer said he has tempered his opinion to consider the business benefits of a larger airport.
When the grassy airstrip was first created in the 1950s, it was in a rural location, and the airport is at least a mile outside the main residential parts of Westminster, Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said after the hearing.
Minnich said the outcry has dissuaded residents and business leaders from taking a public stand in support of the project.
In a recent economic impact study, the Sage Policy Group, Inc. of Baltimore stated that the airport expansion should trigger development in the struggling industrial parks around Westminster.
However, the study advised Carroll County officials to pay for soundproofing the homes of affected residents and mitigate any harm caused to the trees, wetlands and wildlife in the surrounding environment.
Union Bridge resident John D. Witiak was one of the few residents to speak in support of the airport at the hearing. He said the expansion could help build Carroll's lagging industrial tax base.
"It would hopefully take the tax burden off the property owner," Witiak said. "Planes and mass transit, not roads, are the things of the future."