ANNAPOLIS – Small suburban airports are increasingly at odds with development interests in Maryland as the surging economy provides landowners with strong incentives to cash in their airports or the open spaces around them.
It’s a problem that has aviation advocates worried: Fewer airports means more pressure on the state’s already-overcrowded transportation network and less buffer space means developments are infiltrating landing and takeoff corridors, drawing homeowner protests over noise and safety.
Though the latest accident statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board show a continued decline in the number of general aviation crashes nationwide every year, there are still zones around airports – along landing and takeoff corridors – where accidents tend to cluster.
“If you elect to live there,” said Bruce Mundie, director of regional aviation assistance at the Maryland Aviation Administration, “that risk has to be accepted.”
Land planners call these combustible mixtures of airport and houses “incompatible uses,” referring to the county zoning laws that builders follow.
Maryland counties generally don’t restrict what can and can’t be built around airports.
Maryland has averaged about 24 general aviation accidents a year since 1996, with 18 on average occurring at an airport. In 1999, there were 23 accidents and three fatalities, with 16 accidents and two fatalities occurring at or around airports. None of those injured or killed were on the ground.
But for some incompatible developments, it may be just a question of time before someone on the ground gets hurt.
Perhaps Maryland’s best example of mismatched airport zoning is the Potomac Airfield in southern Prince George’s County, where houses were built directly in the path of the runway, less than 1,000 feet from the pavement’s end.
The development met the county’s zoning laws – and the new homeowners even signed a developer’s waiver acknowledging the presence of the airport.
Since 1996, there have been four accidents at Potomac, all in the takeoff and landing corridors. One aircraft crashed into a house, injuring the pilot but no one on the ground.
“It’s sort of like putting your bedroom in the middle of the interstate highway,” Mundie said.
The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the county’s zoning arm, got involved when the homeowners complained to their politicians that the low-flying planes were endangering their homes and families.
The airport, however, was there first. It’s operated since 1957, while the development was built in 1990.
Planning experts are working on changes to the zoning code to prohibit certain types of development – namely housing – from coming too close to runways in Prince George’s County. Officials hope to have the new code approved before construction starts on sections of a new 1,100-acre development adjacent to a county airport in Bowie.
The potential for zoning incompatibilities and outright airport sales looms over 19 privately-owned airports in the state’s pool of 36 public-use facilities – airports where any pilot can takeoff or land.
For MAA, keeping airports open is vital to the health of general aviation in the state: Aside from the economic losses, the closings force more of the state’s estimated 3,000 airplanes into fewer airports, increasing traffic, noise and the potential for accidents.
Baltimore Airpark, a one-runway operation 10 miles northeast of Baltimore and home to 15 airplanes and a flight school, will probably close next year.
Owners Erle and Betsy Mace decided to sell the property two years ago as profits sank and development enveloped them: Baltimore Airpark’s 62 acres are surrounded by a planned 4,300-home community.
“We didn’t have much business; taxes were high,” Betsy Mace said. “We really couldn’t keep it up.”
Though the contracts to incorporate Baltimore Airpark into the housing development are signed, Erle Mace said he’s still operating because he hasn’t received a check yet.
Mace said the airport began to die years ago, strangled by the new development and by competition from the state-bought Martin State Airport in Middle River.
“It would be nice to keep it for general aviation,” Betsy Mace said, “but there’s no way.”
This scenario is common nationwide, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a 350,000-member general aviation advocacy group based in Frederick.
“When you look at this globally, development is one of the threats to airports,” said Warren Morningstar, a spokesman for AOPA. “More appropriately, (the problem is) incompatible land use – it encroaches, surrounds (airports), and then there’s pressure from the new residents to close it.”
Morningstar said the country is losing about one public-use general aviation airport every week. The association wants to change that trend, he said, and made the defense and preservation of airports its primary focus several years ago.
In addition to lobbying state and federal lawmakers for aviation-friendly legislation, AOPA started an Airport Support Network staffed by volunteers who attempt to monitor each of the nation’s 5,000 public-use airports.
Volunteers work with pilot and community groups, distributing safety information and acting as AOPA’s eyes and ears throughout the country, according to Drew Steketee, AOPA senior vice president for communications.
MAA is trying to keep airports open through a program called Maryland Air to Airports, where MAA grants 50 percent of the cost of an airport improvement in return for a guarantee from the owner that the airport will stay open for 10 years, according to Mundie.
But while the aid can ensure the airport stays open, MAA can’t control what happens to buffer zones around airports.
“We cannot do compatible land use,” Mundie said. “That’s the responsibility of the counties.”
Commercial airports, like Baltimore-Washington International, that accept federal dollars are required to have runway protection zones that prohibit “incompatible objects or activities.”
In an ideal world, Mundie said, counties would require the same thing: a trapezoidal area extending from the end of the runway for at least 1,000 feet. Within that area, Mundie would prefer not to see houses: “But I can’t enforce that.”
At present, nine of the 19 privately owned public-use airports in the state are participating in the grant program, according to Mundie.
The effort to save small airports may seem somewhat heroic considering pilots in the state represent only about 0.2 percent of the population. But when it comes to aviation, Americans and Maryland aviators tend to be passionate and protective.
“If you don’t have airports,” Steketee said, “you don’t have aviation.”
And as Mundie points out, airports are an endangered species.
“There’s no new places for airports,” he said. “If we lose them, they’re gone forever. That’s justification enough.”