Technicality may decide controversy over airfield Owner says he needs extra income for farm

August 27, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Woodbine residents opposed to reopening a glider port in their neighborhood will have to wait until next month to tell their story to the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals.

But a 21-day delay is no big deal for people who have been fighting glider port operations at the Woodbine airfield for two decades.

The land in the dispute is Michael R. Harrison's farm on Gillis Falls Road. Although opponents did not testify at yesterday's six-hour hearing, real estate appraiser James H. Dulany IV gave the board a preview of the testimony expected Sept. 16.

Dulany predicted property values would decline if the now-closed airfield is reopened.

Under cross-examination, Dulany acknowledged that property values increased in the neighborhood during the years that the glider port was in operation. He also acknowledged that he did not use recent sales figures in the area as part of his data.

His report centers on the future, not the past, he said. A proposed residential development in the neighborhood might not be as attractive to builders or buyers if the glider port is reopened, Dulany said.

For residents, reopening the glider port would "adversely affect the peaceful enjoyment of their homes," he said.

But the key point Dulany made yesterday is that the 28-year-old zoning battle might be decided on a technicality.

If a portion of the 100-foot wide, 2,500-foot-long grass runway that Harrison wants to put on his 172-acre farm is in a conservation zone, then his request will be denied.

The farm includes two zones -- conservation and agriculture. Airports are allowed in agricultural zones but are not permitted in conservation zones.

Bruce F. Mundie, director of regional aviation assistance for the Maryland Aviation Administration, also testified. He said that Harrison's license to operate the Woodbine airfield had been renewed June 2, perhaps erroneously.

An airport owner must have zoning approval to receive a license, Mundie said. But his agency was unaware that the county had rescinded Harrison's zoning approval and closed the airport.

Airfield history

Airplanes have been landing on the Harrison farm since the 1960s. In 1972, Harrison's father, Robert E. Harrison, received permission from county zoning officials to open a "private commercial airport" -- and lease it to a Baltimore sky-diving club.

But by 1980, sky-diving had been supplanted by glider flights. A resident complained to county zoning officials in 1982 that the airport had become a public facility with up to 90 flights a day. The county zoning administrator disagreed.

Two years later, residents pressured the Board of Zoning Appeals into reopening the case. The board ruled that the glider operation was a "far cry" from what had been approved in May 1972.

To continue to use the airfield as a glider port, Robert Harrison would have had to accept eight conditions and apply for new zoning approval, the board ruled. Instead, Harrison and the glider port operator took the appeals board to court.

A long battle

When the courts initially agreed with Harrison, Woodbine resident Bernard A. Schwartz, who lives about 500 yards from the airfield, filed a countersuit. After 12 years of litigation, the courts sided with Schwartz -- who is heading the current opposition.

The county did not close the airport, however, until after a glider crash last year in which two people suffered minor injuries.

Shortly after the airport was closed, Michael Harrison began to work his way through the government bureaucracy to win approval to reopen it.

He told the board yesterday that he needs the income from the airport to keep the farm operational.

"I'm here today to compromise and to work with people," Harrison said.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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