Firm hits snags in site search

June 05, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

The story of Freewing Aerial Robotics Corp.'s effort to open its first manufacturing plant in Carroll County is a tale of misunderstandings, mistakes, bureaucratic delays and frustration that exhausted the reservoirs of good will on both sides.

And that was just the first 12 months.

In the aftermath of the discovery that the planned aircraft manufacturing plant encroaches on a runway protection zone for the county airport, county and corporate officers are raising the possibility of lawsuits. The building was to go on a 3-acre county-owned lot in the air business center north of Westminster.

Executive Vice President Odile Legeay said the Freewing officers "have not made a final decision" on whether to take legal action against the county.

County Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy hinted that the county might have a damage claim against its airport consulting engineer, Delta Associates Inc.

The irony of the site problem is not lost on Freewing President Hugh Schmittle. "For a whole year, we had a site but no contract. At the last 'meeting to end all meetings' we got a lease agreement and now we don't have a site," he said.

"Meeting to end all meetings" has become Mr. Schmittle's code phrase for the occasional sessions called in the past year by William E. Jenne, former county economic development administrator, to try to get a resolution of issues.

But each "final" meeting was followed by disagreements that eventually led to another meeting, the most recent in mid-May.

County government representatives still hope to help Freewing find a suitable site.

"The glitch we had at the air business center was just that, a glitch," said Robert "Max" Bair, the commissioners' executive assistant and head of economic development for the county. He said county officials have considered two sites, one unsuitable because of infrastructure problems, another with some "sub-options possibilities."

In addition, the Freewing executives are "free to explore anything they want," Mr. Bair said.

Freewing had planned to move into a 20,000-square-foot plant ++ on the county-owned lot by the end of 1993.

The corporation makes unmanned aircraft with pivot wings that provide a smoother flight in turbulence than conventional fixed-wing planes. It plans to employ 12 workers initially; 40 by the end of its first year.

FAA approval unlikely

The Federal Aviation Administration has not made a formal decision yet on whether to allow the building to encroach on an obstruction-free zone along the airport runway.

But Dean Leister, county construction project coordinator, said the agency has indicated that it will reject the county's request to permit the encroachment.

The FAA requires the clear zone for a precision instrument landing system the county wants to buy for the airport. Sometimes FAA allows obstructions if they are not hazardous. The problem was discovered in March during a review of Freewing's site plan.

Mike Zurik, FAA spokesman, reiterated last week that the matter is under study.

Freewing officers are considering other sites, but the corporation needs access to a taxiway to test its pivot-wing aircraft. Few lots are available at the county air business center that meet the criteria.

Frustration with county

Executives of the company express frustration with drawn-out negotiations and situations in which one county representative sends them documents that do not reflect agreements they thought they had reached with another county representative.

Their December 1993 deadline has been pushed back to July. Discovery of the runway encroachment made that deadline unrealistic.

"We're bidding on government contracts," said Mr. Schmittle. "God forbid we should get one."

Freewing executives say they learned of the runway protection zone problem only when a reporter from The Sun asked for comment.

"We haven't heard apologies. We haven't heard, 'What can we do?' We haven't heard anything" from the county, said Ms. Legeay.

County officials won't comment publicly on the working relationship because they don't want to jeopardize what Mr. Lippy calls "what slender chances we have of keeping Freewing here."

Mary Lou Baker, a public information officer for the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development who has worked with Freewing, defends Carroll's efforts.

The Freewing executives' problems with Carroll County "may be in their own minds," Ms. Baker said. "Carroll County has worked very hard to resolve all their difficulties, but you can't please all the people all the time."

The Freewing difficulties led Commissioner Julia W. Gouge's colleagues to agree with her contention that the county economic development office should be bolstered with the appointment of a director.

"This has taught us that we need someone who can truly negotiate with people and who has the time to spend with prospective clients," Mrs. Gouge said.

Mr. Jenne resigned in May to take another job.

Oil leaked on lot

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