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Judge upholds zoning approvals for Harford County Airport expansion

Planned expansion of airport near Churchville clears latest legal hurdle

A judge has upheld a county zoning board of appeals decision last year permitting a planned major expansion of the Harford County Airport near Churchville, including construction of a new, longer and wider main runway.

In a decision filed April 14, retired Harford County Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. concluded, in part: "There was competent, substantial and relevant evidence in the record to support the hearing examiner's conclusions."

"We're pleased with it,' John Gessner, the lawyer for the Harford County Airport Owners Group, Inc., the airport's principal owner, said Monday of Plitt's opinion. "We appreciate that the judge correctly applied the law to the facts."

Brian Young, the county zoning people's counsel who represented a group of opponents in the case, said he did not have permission to comment on the case.

While the opponents still have the option to appeal Plitt's decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the airport expansion has gone through the county review process, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said Tuesday.

"The project has site plan approval and the development can proceed," Mumby said, noting that if further court action happens, any work done would be at the airport owner's risk.

In April 2014, County Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe issued an opinion recommending approvals of a zoning variance to disturb non-tidal wetlands and special exceptions to expand the runway and rebuild other facilities at the 74-year-old airport off of Aldino Road.

The opinion followed four nights of contentious hearings between December 2013 and January 2014, where people living near the airport challenged future expansion plans that call for a 3,200 foot long, 75-foot wide runway to be constructed as a replacement for an existing 2,000 foot long, 35-foot wide paved runway and two smaller grass runways.

Because the new runway will be oriented north to south, rather than east to west as with the existing paved runway, construction also will necessitate removing most of the airport's existing hangars and other buildings. Anticipating additional traffic, the owners group plans to build hangars holding up to 60 planes. Some of the new buildings and the runway will intrude on non-tidal wetlands.

The airport does not have enough traffic for a tower, however, and representatives told Kahoe some future improvements would be tied to the availability of grants and upgrades to the property would, therefore, be completed in phases, with no timetable for completion. A Maryland State Aviation Administration official testified in favor of the expansion, saying it was consistent with the state plan for aviation facilities.

The airport property has mixed industrial and agricultural zoning, and airports are permitted in both zones under a zoning special exception. Harford has two other airports, in Fallston and in Forest Hill. Both the Fallston and Harford County airports are classified as public use facilities. The Forest Hill facility, which is surrounded by an industrial park, is a private airport.

In 2013, at the behest of the Harford County Airport's owners, the County Council relaxed some parameters of the zoning law regarding airports, particularly setbacks from adjoining properties. At the time, sponsors said those changes were necessary to accommodate the proposed new runway, but the legislation still made any improvements subject to zoning appeals board approval.

Many of those who testified at the zoning hearings before Kahoe said they expected expansion of the airport would increase air traffic over their neighborhoods, which none of the applicant's witnesses denied.

Concerns also were raised that larger aircraft, including jets, would be able to use the expanded runway, also not denied by the applicants witnesses, although they emphasized the new facilities were not being designed to attract or accommodate jet-powered aircraft.

Kahoe's opinion also set 11 conditions to be met for the expansion to proceed, none of which was opposed by the owners, including that aircraft be stored inside structures, that buildings be screened from the airport property's one adjoining residential neighborhood and that the owners receive all applicable federal and state permits with regard to airport operations and wetlands mitigation and disturbance.

Following the release of Kahoe's opinion, opponents requested that the Harford County Council, acting in its dual capacity as the board of appeals and, as such, having final say in zoning matters, review the opinion and possibly overturn it.

The council conducted a final argument session in early September 2014 and on Sept. 16, 2014, voted 5-1 to uphold Kahoe's opinion as submitted.

Young, the zoning people's counsel, then filed an appeal of the council's action with the Circuit Court, as did a Bel Air area resident, John Mallamo, who represented himself. Plitt heard arguments on March 20.

The judge dismissed an argument raised by Mallamo, who he noted "has no 'connection' " to the airport, that granting the zoning "amounts to some form of taking in violation of the Maryland and United States Constitution."

"The special exception and variance granted herein do not amount to any form of taking," Plitt wrote.

He also wrote that Mallamo and the people's council "make a scattershot argument that somehow the decision violates various provisions of law," concluding the case's factual record failed to sustain such claims.

"The hearing examiner considered every single requirement in the Harford County Zoning Code which had to be satisfied to grant the special exception," Plitt wrote. "He did the same thing with regard to the requested approval to disturb [non-tidal] wetlands."

Plitt also rejected one other argument that the hearing examiner had approved the variance and special exception, without considering potential "adverse effects" on adjoining properties that could serve as a basis for denial under Maryland case law.

"The Hearing Examiner found from the facts and circumstances that the particular use proposed...would not have any adverse effect above and beyond those inherently associated with such special exception use, irrespective of the location within the particular zone," the judge concluded.

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