Airport owners now seek to build an 'aviation community' next door 'Like a marina,' with planes instead of boats HARFORD COUNTY

February 03, 1993|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,Contributing Writer

Picture a neighborhood where a plane is as common as a car, where every house has a hangar next to it, where the roads double as taxiways.

It's more than mere flight of fancy for Fred Simmons and 21 other plane enthusiasts who own Harford County Airpark in Aldino and want to build an "aviation community" next to it.

Mr. Simmons, clad in a leather bomber jacket, stands at the end of the 52-year-old airport's runway and gazes at the surrounding farmland, his head filled with visions of an aviator's answer to a waterfront community.

Replace the boats with planes, the slips with hangars and, says Mr. Simmons, "It's just like a marina, really.

"Right now, people who like planes have to travel a great distance to get to their love," he says above the buzz of a few two-seaters flying overhead. "An aviation community puts your recreation in your garage."

Mr. Simmons, president of the Harford County Airport Owners Group Inc., says the aviation community would be built on 60 acres next to the 58-acre airport.

Within a year, the group hopes to buy land to build detached houses on one-acre lots, each of which would include a hangar for a small plane. Community roads also would serve as taxiways to the 2,000-foot runway, which the owners want to lengthen.

The airport plans to make an offer this year on 10 adjacent acres being sold, probably for around $200,000, Mr. Simmons says. Within a year of making that purchase, the owners would like to buy another 50 acres of the roughly 1,000 acres being sold by an adjoining sod farm.

Mr. Simmons, who has yet to put a cost estimate on the project, says the group hopes to get federal funding -- some of the $3.5 billion available for the development of public-use airports. But before the airport could receive any federal money, Harford County would have to conclude that the project would have "a positive economic impact" and give the airport a break on property taxes.

James Fielder, Harford's economic development director, says the airport owners made a verbal presentation requesting the tax break last year. But Mr. Fielder says the Economic Development Advisory Board needs a written proposal before it can consider the request further.

Mr. Simmons calls the federal money a "long shot," but says he's confident the project would fly without it because two major developers have expressed interest. He declined to identify them, saying negotiations are continuing.

Harford County Councilman Robert Wagner, a Republican whose District E includes the airport, says he foresees no public opposition to the plans.

"Certainly, they have an established airport; it's not like they want to do this in some residential area and start from scratch," Mr. Wagner says. "Those people who bought into that area around the airport knew what they were getting into."

Speaking of the aviation community idea, the councilman adds: "It's a neat concept. It's a unique idea. I know of nothing like this. It's got some appeal."

The aviation community would be modeled after hundreds of others around the country, Mr. Simmons says. Such communities are particularly popular in Florida and California, he says.

The airport would have to comply with Federal Aviation Administration requirements for setbacks around runways and taxiways. The FAA also requires that there be no overhead wires and that meters also be buried.

Owners of the single-family homes would be governed by covenants, the airport's owners say.

When the owners group bought Harford Airpark in the early 1970s, its members went to great lengths to ensure that suburban sprawl wouldn't squeeze out their airport.

They set up charters and bylaws "to make it virtually impossible to change it from an airport," Mr. Simmons says.

"We got together to prevent this place from becoming a housing development," says Joe Kesser, the airport's manager.

Now, the owners want a housing development of sorts next door -- not your typical development, they point out, but a community built for pilots and their planes. The aviation community, the owners say, would ensure that planes keep flying over the rural lands.

Mr. Simmons says the aviation traffic would be expected to be mostly recreational, with about 20 percent of the flights for business. He cites himself as an example. While he occasionally flies for business, he says, "A large proportion of what I do is to bore holes in the sky."

Local pilots favor the airport because of its unobstructed approaches, 400-foot elevation and breathtaking views of the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

The aircraft buzzing through the Harford skies include used small planes that sell for around $25,000 and some gliders. Plane owners pay $40 a month to keep a plane outside, or $150 to park it in a hangar, which most prefer. About 100 planes use the airport, and it has hangar space for about 40.

But the airport recently arranged for $100,000 in financing to build 12,000 square feet of hangars, which will provide space for 12 airplanes. The group has signed leases for half of that space and a waiting list for the rest.

And, starting in March, a large flight school will come to the airport.

Baltimore Airpark Inc., which operates a flight school near White Marsh in Baltimore County, is to move its nine planes and two full-time instructors to Harford County Airpark within a month.

As part of the move, the flight school is to be renamed Phoenix Inc. to avoid geographical confusion. The company plans to take over an existing building at the airport and remodel it for offices and classrooms, says Jay Gathman, president of Baltimore Airpark Inc. Harford Airpark's land, zoned for industrial use, would fetch $1.2 million if it were sold for nonaviation uses, Mr. Simmons says. He puts its value at $250,000 as an airport.

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