ANNAPOLIS – Like special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully on TV’s “X- Files,” Craig Rovelstad and Wendy Irminger are working together on a flying- object mystery.
Their assignment is as complicated as any alien encounter Mulder and Scully ever attempted to solve: trying to help humankind, airports and airplanes coexist in Prince George’s County.
But Rovelstad and Irminger don’t work for the FBI and they’re not the stuff of Hollywood: They’re land use planners with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County.
And they’re on a deadline.
The two are racing to finish a land-use zoning code that could allow airports, communities and businesses around Prince George’s County’s general aviation airports to live in peace – before any more houses get built under busy takeoff and landing zones.
It’s a difficult job: Pilots are passionate about airplanes, homeowners are zealous about family safety, and zoning code changes are controversial because the sale price of property is at stake.
“We’re treading a really fine line between the landowners, the pilots and the civic groups,” said Rovelstad.
Part of the problem is that development is quickly consuming the open space around the county’s four general aviation airports – and if new houses fill in before the new code’s filled out, experts fear angry homeowners will eventually demand the airports be shut down.
Fewer airports means more air traffic at other public-use state airports, a problem that has state aviation officials concerned.
Compatible zoning would limit development in certain critical areas around airports, especially trapezoidal zones that start where the runways end – and where accidents tend to cluster.
But no such prohibitions exist in the county.
Irminger, Rovelstad and two co-workers are juggling complex interests and trying to come up with a solution: addressing the hazards posed by low-flying aircraft, minimizing land sales to clear critical zones and finding ways to maximize safety.
One small airport next to one small community in southern Prince George’s County became the team’s instruction manual.
After a string of light-aircraft crashes at Potomac Airfield, concerned neighbors began calling their local politicians, demanding the airport be shut down.
But the airport and the development were both built and operated legally – the airport since 1957.
Rovelstad and Irminger were asked to investigate what Prince George’s County could do about the situation.
“It got put into our budget,” Rovelstad said.
The duo, both non-pilots and unfamiliar with aviation, set out to learn why airplanes and people weren’t mixing well at the tree-hidden, one-runway airport 10 miles south of Washington.
The team’s ultimate goal was to draft airport zoning regulations to ensure “compatible” development in the future for the county’s four general aviation airports – two in southern Prince George’s County, one in College Park and one near Bowie.
The problem at Potomac seemed obvious: A housing development had been built in line with the Potomac Airfield runway, less than 1,000 feet from the pavement’s end. Federal and state aviation rules allowed it; the county’s zoning code allowed for it; the upset homeowners had signed waivers acknowledging the nearby airport.
“Everybody screwed up,” Rovelstad said.
The team came back with suggestions: Buy the airport and close it; buy the houses; realign the runway so airplanes wouldn’t fly over the houses; post “low- flying” aircraft signs to warn potential buyers of the hazards; or do nothing.
What happens now is up to the county council, the airport owner and the homeowners, Irminger said.
Airport owner David Wartofsky said most of the clamoring to close the field has subsided and most of the concerned residents have moved out.
One homeowner disagreed.
“That’s not the case,” said Kesha Jackson. “Lately it’s been real bad.”
Jackson’s still concerned about the low-flying airplanes directly over her house: “If anything ever happens, they’ll probably crash into somebody’s roof.”
“I know nobody’s pleased with this,” Jackson said.
After studying the problems at Potomac Airfield, Irminger and Rovelstad moved onto similar problems countywide, especially at Freeway Airport near Bowie where an approved 1,100-acre development could put houses under flight paths.
It’s a good bet whatever zoning code changes they come up with will be controversial.
“It’s well-intentioned, but economic interests won’t let it get too far,” said Wartofsky. He thinks special airport zoning could potentially devalue the land – drawing ire from landowners and developers.
But Richard DiBerardo, a residential developer in Baltimore said values could increase if zoning is changed from residential to commercial.
“I don’t think the development community would be against it,” DiBerardo said.
Rovelstad and Irminger think they’ll have a first cut at their new code this summer, and possibly an answer to the perplexing question of how flying objects and humans might live in peace in Prince George’s.
“If we get something on the books so we can hang our hat on it,” Rovelstad said, “we can enforce that.”