O. James Lighthizer will soon find out just how many airplanes flying in and out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport it takes to anger nearby residents.
And when he takes over Jan. 1 as the state's new transportation secretary, he will learn just how hard it is to strike a balance between expanding the airport and its operations and trying to minimize the amount of noise generated by low-flying planes.
For four years, Lighthizer was the government leader in the airport's home county -- and though the airport was run by the state, residents angry about noisy planes wanted him as an ally in their fight for a quieter airport.
But many complain that the former county executive stayed in the background and kept quiet on airport issues -- that he had his chance to help residents fight against airport expansion and never took advantage of it.
Those people are now voicing some reservations about Lighthizer taking over the top transportation spot. Some community leaders complain that Lighthizer is a clone of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who they say puts money generated by the airport ahead of the residents who live around it.
Other association heads, however, are more positive about Lighthizer's role.
"Mr. Lighthizer certainly appreciated the income the county derived from the airport," said Lewin Maddox, the Glen Burnie representative to the BWI Neighbors Committee, which is made up of community associations and airport officials. "I consider him to be an excellent administrator. He will do an excellent job."
Ernie Michaelson, the Timber Ridge representative and former president of the Neighbors Committee, said, "We should give him a chance to prove himself -- to see how responsive he is to the noise problem."
But Michaelson said Lighthizer got the job because he is a Schaefer ally, which could be dangerous. "The governor is pro-airport expansion, so, by inference, is insensitive to noise problems."
Lighthizer could not be reached for comment. Maryland Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation refused to comment before Lighthizer takes office.
"We haven't met with him," said Linda Greene, spokeswoman for the Maryland Aviation Administration.
"We don't have a sense of his thinking or his philosophy," said Muffet Robinson, acting director of public affairs for the transportation department.
Many community activists questioned just how much influence Lighthizer will have on airport issues, since he does not have much direct experience.
"I don't think he knows what he is going to do," said Dennis Stevens, president of the Airport Coordinating Team, a BWI watchdog group.
Stevens said outgoing Transportation Secretary Richard H. Trainor never got involved in the running of BWI, instead defering to MAA Administrator Ted Mathison.
"He was more involved with highways," Stevens said. "He didn't know anything about airport issues. Lighthizer may be in the same position. This is part of the problem. He is a Schaefer prodigy. He got this job because he was nice."
However, Tom Dixon, president of the Neighbors Committee, said Lighthizer is a "very good appointment" because he is from the county and knows the problems North County residents face with airport noise.
"I think he is more competent to make a presentation to Gov. Schaefer," Dixon said, adding that Lighthizer "knew everything that was going on" at BWI when he was county executive.
It is unclear just what changes, if any, Lighthizer will make at the airport. Two months ago, Schaefer said he was considering splitting the aviation administration away from the DOT, making it an independent agency.
However, Schaefer's spokesman, Paul Schurick, refused to comment on that proposal.
Community leaders said Lighthizer may take the same hands-off approach toward BWI as his predecessor.
"Ted (Mathison) was a big buffer between the BWI Neighbors and Trainor," Maddox said. "Community associations rarely had to go to Trainor.
Lighthizer will have an awful lot of things to do (as transportation secretary)."
Maddox said Mathison will continue to be relied on for explaining the technical aspects of running an airport. Lighthizer must now look at BWI with a statewide perspective, he said.
"Lighthizer has an awful lot of knowledge about the people in North County. But as far as the state goes, that is only a small portion of the people. He has (familiarity with the BWI noise issue), but I don't think he will be swayed by it."