Aircraft plant in jeopardy

April 22, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

A Carroll County government lapse may jeopardize or delay a new aircraft manufacturer's plans to open a plant here.

County officials are scrambling to find another location for Freewing Aircraft Corp. after learning in the past two weeks that the proposed site will conflict with needed landing space at the county airport.

Freewing was scheduled to lease a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that the county planned to build on a 3-acre county-owned lot in the Air Business Center along Route 97 north of Westminster.

The lot formerly housed the county recycling barn, which was torn down for the planned new building.

The problem with the Freewing site is that the building would jut into an obstruction-free zone that the Federal Aviation Administration requires for aircraft making precision instrument landings. County staff members say the building could be shoehorned onto the site to avoid the reserved area, but that would leave no room for expansion.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said it is "very possible" the problem could lead Freewing executives to look at sites elsewhere. "We're working on several angles to try to save the company [here]," Mrs. Gouge said. "I think it's a real important company to Carroll County."

Freewing executives want to be able to triple the plant size, to 60,000 square feet. The corporation plans to start with eight employees and hopes to have 40 at the end of its first year of production.

The county airport has concept approval from the FAA for an instrument landing system, but does not yet have final approval or financing from the agency.

"That will be several years down the road," said J. Michael Evans, head of the county Department of General Services, which oversees the airport. "But what we're trying to do is . . .

protect the [geometric] plane."

Commissioner Donald I. Dell said the county wants to encourage airport development. "Based on that hopefulness, I think we'd be kind of foolish to put a building in there that might be in the way in 10 years," he said.

Freewing Executive Vice President Odile Legeay said Tuesday that she knew nothing of the site problem. She said Freewing told county officials a year ago that the corporation wanted to start manufacturing by the end of 1993, a deadline that has now been pushed back to the end of July.

"We understand the whole thing is on the fast track," Ms. Legeay said. "I don't know what the slow track would be."

Robert "Max" Bair, the commissioners' executive assistant, declined to predict yesterday whether the county can meet Freewing's July 31 deadline.

"This issue is one we're looking at very late," Mr. Bair said, adding that the county will need to move fast to secure a site and erect a building in three months.

All other lots in the Air Business Center are privately owned, but Mr. Bair said it appears that the state low-interest loan package for Freewing can be applied to a lot purchase price.

Freewing needs a runway near its plant to test its aircraft. The corporation has won national engineering design awards for an aircraft wing that flexes with turbulent air to provide a smoother and safer flight than fixed wings.

The potential conflict with the FAA runway protection zone came to light about six weeks after the county's consulting engineer had submitted a site plan to Westminster city government for review. The Air Business Center is in the city limits.

Mr. Bair said he couldn't recall who brought the problem to his attention. "It was kind of a staccato succession of contacts," he said.

Neither Mr. Bair nor Commissioner Dell was able to explain how the conflict was overlooked. Mr. Bair said he had been unable to get a satisfactory answer to his questions.

Mr. Dell said he didn't know "the history of all this and why it wasn't settled long ago, but it seems like in government things happen one at a time."

William E. Jenne, county economic development administrator, said the county is proceeding with construction plans for Freewing. He said aid for the new corporation includes up to $1 million in a low-interest loan and $500,000 in community development block grant money that the county will extend to Freewing to buy equipment. The corporation is to repay the county.

The county airport has a nonprecision instrument landing approach in which pilots fly over a guidance system at Bird Hill and then go 6.4 miles north to reach the county airport, said an area pilot who asked not to be identified. Under FAA rules, ceilings must be 700 feet or higher for pilots to land with this type of approach. With a precision instrument approach, pilots can land with ceilings as low as 200 feet.

For runways with precision instrument systems, the FAA requires side and end clear zones with nothing higher than the runway surface, said Terry Page, safety engineering section supervisor for the FAA's Washington district office.

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