To accommodate corporate jets migrating away from major airports to regional ones, Carroll County commissioners adopted a contentious plan yesterday to build a new, expanded runway at the Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster.
The $56 million plan calls for relocating and extending the airport's main runway, giving larger jets the necessary space to take off with full tanks of fuel and more passengers. The plan would rebuild the 5,100-foot runway 250 feet west and 600 feet north of its present location.
"With a longer runway, they can take off in a much safer manner," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said. Additional corporate hangars will also generate more revenue for the airport, she said.
The airport project is one of several under way in the state, as large airports become more congested and have added airspace restrictions since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A $64 million project to rebuild a 7,000-foot runway in Hagerstown should be completed by the end of the year, and another runway reconstruction is under way at Martin State Airport in Middle River, said Michael J. Waibel, the senior airport planner with URS Corp., a Hunt Valley company consulting on the airport projects, including Carroll's.
Runway extensions are also in progress or planned on the Eastern Shore - in Easton, Salisbury, Cambridge and Ocean City, Waibel said.
In Westminster, many residents have protested the airport expansion project that the Carroll commissioners launched nearly three years ago.
Waibel said the expanded runway will better accommodate the larger Gulfstream 5 jets now favored for corporate travel. The Gulfstream 5 has a wingspan of nearly 100 feet with about 10 passenger seats, compared with the older Gulfstream 4, which has about an 80-foot wingspan, he said.
An expanded Carroll airport would also gain more revenue from fuel sales because the current runway is too short for larger jets to fill their tanks before taking off, Waibel added.
"It's not an exercise in attracting larger aircraft: It's to sell fuel to your base customers," Waibel said of the runway expansions under way at the state's regional airports.
Opponents have worried that more jets will bring noise and pollution, destroying the rural quality of life. Other protesters have called federal and state funding for such a project a form of corporate welfare because commercial airport taxes and fees fund expansions at smaller airports that primarily serve corporate jets.
Two citizens groups submitted a petition to the county with signatures from more than 1,000 residents opposed to the expansion.
Voting in favor of the project were commissioners Dean L. Minnich and Gouge.
Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer, who aligned himself with the anti-expansion camp during his campaign before the Republican primary in September, was the only one of the three board members to vote against the runway extension plan yesterday. He said the expansion could harm the surrounding environment.
"Are the environmental impacts worth it?" Zimmer said. "We're talking about additional nonporous surface, we're talking about potential impact on wildlife habitat, we're talking about potential impact on air pollution."
Westminster residents had increased their protests of the expansion over the past week. On Monday, Carroll County Circuit Judge J. Barry Hughes denied their request for an injunction to delay the commissioners' vote, according to Robert Brink, co-chairman of the anti-expansion group Concerned Citizens United.
Brink's group now plans to incorporate so that it can hire an environmental attorney to challenge the expansion.
The FAA requires an environmental assessment of the airport plan, which could take up to two years to complete, county officials said. Another airspace study will determine how expanding the Carroll County Regional Airport would affect other airports in the region, said Gary Horst, acting airport supervisor with the county's Office of Performance Auditing.
County officials expect the airport expansion to be completed in 2013.