28-year zoning battle begins another round Farmer appeals closing of Woodbine glider port

August 26, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Carroll County's oldest zoning case -- a 28-year battle over the use of a Woodbine airfield -- will reopen at 9: 30 a.m. today in the new conference room of the county office building.

On one side is 45-year-old farmer Michael R. Harrison, a lifelong county resident who says he needs to rent part of the farm as a glider port to make ends meet.

On the other side is a group of nearby residents led by Bernard A. Schwartz. Residents say the airfield has a bad safety record -- numerous accidents and several fatalities -- and that it has an adverse effect on their property values.

Harrison was a teen-ager when the county Board of Appeals -- as the Board of Zoning Appeals was known then -- gave his father permission May 5, 1972, to operate a 100- by 1,650-foot runway on the property as a private air strip and drop-zone for parachutists.

Pilots had landed on Harrison's open fields in the 1960s and, in 1972, one of them suggested they would make an ideal airport and drop-zone for the growing sport of sky-diving. Harrison's father leased the field to the Baltimore Skydivers Club in 1972.

The Board of Appeals said the club could use the field two days a week and on Saturdays and Sundays from April through November.

In September 1978, a Rockville police sergeant was killed in a parachute jump in Woodbine when he landed in a tree and was strangled trying to release a reserve parachute.

In 1980, the airfield was changed to a glider facility. Two years later, a tow-pilot and his passenger were killed when the plane crashed and exploded June 18. A nearby resident told police he saw the plane try to dodge an incoming glider before it went out of control and crashed behind a stand of trees.

Another fatal crash occurred Sept. 14, 1986, when a tow-plane lost one of its wings moments after releasing a glider. The plane crashed about two miles west of the glider port, killing the pilot and a passenger.

After the first crash, neighbors complained to county officials that the airfield had become a public facility spawning 90 flights a day.

The Board of Zoning Appeals revisited the issue in 1984 and, after six days of hearings, ruled that the operation was a "far cry" from what was allowed in 1972 and that if Harrison wanted to continue to use the airfield as a glider port, he would have to reapply.

Harrison and the operator of the glider port sued.

Schwartz and his neighbors hired attorney John T. Willis -- now secretary of state for Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- to oppose the suit. The case was in litigation 12 years, going to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, and through Maryland's courts, which eventually ruled in Schwartz's favor.

The airfield continued to operate as a glider port until last year. Schwartz thought he had succeeded in closing the airfield when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in his favor in August 1996.

But the county did not close the field until March 1997, after a glider crashed in a cornfield while trying to land at the airport, injuring the pilot and his passenger.

Applicants in Board of Zoning Appeals cases whose plans are rejected can reapply two years later. That is what Harrison, who raises Black Angus cattle and grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a 172-acre farm surrounding the airfield, is doing.

"Farming has been so darn poor that I've got to do a little something extra," Harrison said yesterday. "This has been part of our livelihood since 1972. I'm trying to work with the neighbors."

But so far, that has not happened.

Schwartz, who lives about 500 yards from the airfield and has been fighting the use of the Woodbine airfield as a glider port since 1982, has lost none of his zeal.

Monday night, he met with about 30 of his neighbors to rally support against the project. He has hired another lawyer -- Westminster attorney Brian M. Bowersox -- to represent them.

"The most aggravating thing" about Harrison's new attempt to win approval for the glider port, Schwartz said, is that "it cost him $50 to file a zoning request and it costs us $5,000 to fight him. We have to hire an attorney and an appraiser."

The appraiser's job is to show that property values are declining because of the airport -- "something that should be obvious," Schwartz said.

Harrison plans to represent himself. "I haven't hired a lawyer," he said. "I can't afford it -- and it separates you. If the board wants to ask me something, they can ask it right to me. Often with a lawyer, you have to go through a couple of steps."

The only indication that a glider port existed on Harrison's farm is a wind sock and a small wooden sign near a cattle gate, saying, "Woodbine Gliderport."

To the north are a barn and a silo, and to the south are open fields leading to a grove of trees about a mile away.

When Schwartz first held a meeting at a local church years ago to oppose the glider port, Harrison and his father went to the meeting to ask what they could do to alleviate the concerns, Harrison said. But Schwartz "went home that night determined to shut us down," he said.

Harrison said he and his family have sought to be good neighbors and have taken part in civic endeavors, noting that his two eldest children went to Indiana last month to assist stricken farmers there.

"I've got to live around here and the kids have got to be around here," he said. "Anything I can to do to get along so I can continue to farm, I will do. Farming is my whole life. It's all I know."

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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