As the blade turns Helicopter controversy: Problems for Rite Aid's Grass show need to update zoning code.

February 25, 1998

BEYOND PETTY DETAILS of the feud between Rite Aid Corp. Chairman Martin L. Grass and his Green Spring Valley neighbors over his helicopter lie these questions: Where should helicopter takeoffs and landings be allowed? How can Baltimore County meet the needs of executives who commute by copter?

Regarding the feud, neighbors contend that Mr. Grass' helicopter is upsetting their lives. But like the judge who denied a request to ground the copter until county authorities resolve the dispute, we're skeptical that the situation is so atrocious, considering the noise exists for only a few minutes twice a day.

Nonetheless, neighbors appear to have the law on their side. Helipads are not allowed in rural areas, yet Mr. Grass has been using nearby Helmore Farm, with the owners' permission. He is doing so despite citations, saying the county has failed to find suitable alternatives.

He also claims that Helmore contains an old airstrip that predates county zoning and, thus, should be a legal nonconforming use. The zoning commissioner isn't likely to buy that argument unless the farm's owners can prove the airstrip has been in continuous operation all these years. Mr. Grass has also requested a special exception to operate an "airport," a permitted use in rural zones.

Whatever the outcome of this case, the county needs to address the lack of helicopter landing sites. It's a matter of economic development; executives who commute via helicopter the way most of us use cars are not likely to move their company to a place where they are personally inconvenienced. Mr. Grass, an important player in Baltimore's philanthropic community, says he will move if the helicopter problem is not resolved.

The county is committed to protecting residential areas from nuisances, as it should. But this issue raises the question of why helipads are not an option in rural areas. The zoning code -- which has not been comprehensively revised since 1955 -- permits airports in such locales, subject to a hearing at which opponents have a chance to argue their side. Helipads, a less intense use, ought to be allowed at least that option. If the middle of a 50-acre estate surrounded mostly by fields isn't a remote enough place to land a helicopter, what is?

Pub Date: 2/25/98

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