Technicality may decide airfield dispute 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 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.

Residents told Dulany in a survey that an airfield is an "unsafe neighborhood nuisance" that would lead to "economic obsolescence" in their community, Dulany said.

In other words, property values would decline, he predicted.

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.

Some residents responding to his survey told him that when the glider port was operational, they could not sleep during the day because of noise, he said. Others reported that tow-lines dangling behind planes once the gliders were released have pulled shingles off a roof, torn down fences, damaged crops, and sent farm workers scurrying for cover, Dulany 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.

Maps contradictory

Dulany introduced a zoning map into evidence yesterday that seemed to indicate that a portion of the proposed runway is in a conservation zone. But an aerial photograph from the county planning department that Harrison introduced seemed to show the opposite -- that the runway is entirely within an agricultural zone.

No one -- neither Harrison, nor the protesters, nor county officials -- knew for sure. The ensuing confusion was one more indication that this is not only the county's longest-running zoning case, but perhaps its most bizarre.

Consider, for example, the testimony of Bruce F. Mundie, director of regional aviation assistance for the Maryland Aviation Administration. 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, he said.

"This has never happened before," Mundie said. "We're plowing new ground. I'm not sure how to handle this one."

Airfield history

Airplanes have been landing on the Harrison farm since the 1960s. In 1972, Harrison's father, Robert E. Harrison, made that function official. He received permission from county zoning officials to open a "private commercial airport" -- one he would lease to a Baltimore sky-diving club two days a week and on weekends from April through November.

But by 1980, sky-diving had been supplanted by glider flights. A nearby 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, saying that because the airfield was being used for private commercial purposes -- though it had changed from sky-diving to gliders -- the use conformed to that approved in 1972 by the appeals board.

Two years later, residents pressured the Board of Zoning Appeals into reopening the case. After six days of hearings, 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, Harrison's father would have had to accept eight conditions and apply for new zoning approval, the board ruled. Instead, Robert 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 and has been fighting the glider port since 1984, filed a countersuit. After 12 years of litigation, the courts sided with Schwartz -- who is heading the opposition again.

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

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