St. Mary's fails in bid to ban sky-diving

November 12, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

St. Mary's County has lost its bid to ban parachute jumping at the local airport, but its fight with the sky-diving center continues in federal court.

After the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that sky-diving is compatible with other activities at St. Mary's County Airport, the county Airport Commission last week dropped its attempt to ban sky-diving, an attempt that was blocked in April by a U.S. District Court judge.

The commission could not defy the FAA without risking the loss of federal money for airport improvements.

Eventually, the court will hear arguments from the county and the Skydiving Center of Greater Washington on the center's complaint that sky-diving rules established by the commission are discriminatory and were written without consulting the center. The center also claims that the commission has not followed proper administrative procedure.

In the meantime, the court has barred the commission from enforcing existing rules, said George Haliscak, chairman of the seven-member panel.

"We cannot give them any direction which could be interpreted as hindering their operation," said Mr. Haliscak, who insists that the Skydiving Center poses a safety hazard.

A private pilot, Mr. Haliscak said "I damn near had a midair collision with the sky-diving plane" months ago. He claims the plane was climbing so steeply that the pilot did not see Mr. Haliscak's plane as it entered the landing pattern.

Mr. Haliscak also cited several other incidents, including sky divers landing near the runway and being dragged across, sky divers landing on hangars and other pilots having to take evasive action to avoid parachute jumpers.

After several inspections, the FAA found that the Skydiving Center had not violated aviation rules and concluded that the operation is "compatible with current aviation activities at the airport."

However, in letters to the county and the center, the FAA said "parachute jumping does present a potential safety hazard calling for close monitoring of future activity." The agency urged the center and the county to work together to establish sky-diving rules.

Cindy and Kevin Gibson, who opened the center in June 1990, claim the controversy over the commission's ban has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business, along with about $60,000 in legal fees. Some sky divers have shied away from the center because of county and FAA scrutiny, Ms. Gibson said. The Gibsons also claim several pilots have backed out of commitments to fly for the center because they believed they could not depend on steady business.

"I can't tell you how hard it is for a little mom and pop operation to support something like that," said Mr. Gibson, who also works as publications director for the U.S. Parachute Association.

For its part in this dispute, the county has spent about $170,000, and has taken some heat for that in the local papers.

"It's better to take heat than to have an accident at the airport and have the county be liable for it," said Mr. Haliscak.

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