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Regional airport continues to grow

The Baltimore Sun

On a blustery afternoon, Dave Lawrence yanked a cord, cranking the motor of a machine that would help him single-handedly tug an Apache 235 airplane out of T-hangar 73.

Within 10 minutes, Lawrence and plane co-owner Bob Kirkner had taken off for York, Pa., on a flight that served two purposes. With the mercury dipping and the wind ripping, Lawrence and Kirkner wanted to see if the plane's heater was working.

If they didn't freeze first, the pair were planning to land over the Mason-Dixon Line to dine on the proverbial $100 hamburger, a meal that some aviators describe - half in jest - as an excuse to cruise the skies.

Lawrence and Kirkner, like many part-time pilots and full-time fliers, departed from Carroll County Regional Airport, whose buildings, fields and 5,100-foot runway are a few miles north of downtown Westminster.

The airport has evolved over several decades, growing from a cow pasture that supported wartime military airlifts into a county-owned facility looking to expand in the face of opposition from residents.

In its current state, the airport is appreciated for its location - as much for its proximity to destinations as for its distance from government restrictions.

"It's a general-aviation airport; most of the flights are actually the local small-plane flier," said Joe Varrone, the county performance auditor who oversaw the airport until early April, when he began a job with the county school system. "At the same time, we do get corporate traffic. They'll come in their private jets."

The runway, at its busiest, averages 360 to 414 daily "operations," according to a 2005 draft of the facility's master plan. Takeoffs and landings are counted separately, so the number of operations can be inflated by flight schools and the occasional practicing pilot. Nevertheless, the facility sees its fair share of travelers.

Many of the departures and arrivals stop at one of the airport's two fixed-base operators - businesses that act as service centers, flight schools and pilot hangouts.

WestAir Aviation and American Pilot Services account for an estimated 26 of about 70 employees who work at - but not for - the airport. They cater to business travelers and casual aviators.

"We provide pilot services of just about every type," said Mark Myers, director of fixed-base operations for WestAir.

The airport, in turn, serves to better the economy, county officials said.

"The [Westminster Air Business Center] has grown up around the airport, ... and other business parks continue to develop in that corridor," said Paige Sunderland, business development manager for the county Department of Economic Development.

"Some of our companies do utilize the airport for their corporate aviation needs, so that certainly is an asset to be able to offer them the airport as an amenity."

The airport also attracts corporate travelers coming from or going to places outside Carroll County, said Myers. "There are a lot of the larger firms flying in and out quite frequently," he said. "It's much more convenient for them than to fly to BWI or one of the airports farther away that are much more congested."

Pilots and airport employees say that Carroll County Regional also is convenient because of its location outside the Air Defense Identification Zone that restricts and regulates air traffic in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"You can train your students without hassles based on controlled airspaces," said Peter Rutelli, a WestAir flight instructor.

The location created an ideal business opportunity for Andrew Dean and Randy McDole, who own fixed-base operator American Pilot Services.

Being outside the Air Defense Identification Zone "gives us a substantial competitive advantage over folks that are inside of the [restricted] airspace," Dean said. "A lot of flying in general aviation is practicing, so [the location] makes it very reachable for those individuals."

Demand for the airport's facilities has grown in recent years. About 100 planes are stored on-site, filling the T-hangars and forcing some to park on the apron. What was once a financial underachiever has been profitable for four straight fiscal years, bringing the airport out of the red and into the black, officials said.

"We run a tight ship, but at the same time we go out of our way to provide great service to our customers at the airport," Varrone said. "We're here to enhance economic development and revenue for citizens."

Officials said the main reason that the airport is earning money is because of its seven corporate hangars.

The latest master plan, which officials hope to adopt this summer, would include one of four options concerning the airport runway. One proposal - which calls for building a new runway that is 1,300 feet longer and located 250 feet west and 600 feet north of the current strip - would make takeoffs and landings possible for larger planes.

The proposed $74 million runway expansion project - $1.9 million of which would come from airport revenue - would allow the airport to expand its apron and to invite businesses to construct corporate hangars from which the county would profit.

The expansion is opposed by area residents who are concerned about its impact on property values and the environment.

At Ron Buczkowski's health food store in Westminster, signs reading "No Airport Expansion" and "We Say No to Airport Expansion" hang at the entrance. Inside, Buczkowski has an anti-expansion petition, and he said he has collected nearly 1,000 signatures.

"When most of the residents moved here, it was a country airport, and it has become an airport that is much more user-friendly to jet service now," said Buczkowski, co-chairman of the Carroll Joint Neighborhood Association. "With increased jet traffic comes more pollution and noise issues, and ... the airport is surrounded by more and more residential development."

Varrone said an expanded runway would bring only a few more jet flights a day, while increased traffic and a longer runway would bring in more fuel sales.

The runway "will have a positive economic impact on the county," Varrone said. "It will keep the airport enterprise fund in the black, ... and it will add revenue to the county's general fund."

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