Ruling could quiet turbulence over rural Carroll glider port Long-running dispute has neighbors at odds

September 26, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Under different circumstances, Bernard A. Schwartz has no doubt that he could have been a friend to his neighbor, Michael R. Harrison.

They both enjoy adventure, Schwartz says. He's an avid scuba diver; Harrison is a longtime pilot. They are both active in the 4-H Club. And for 25 years, they have lived just 500 yards apart.

But that distance might as well have been 500 miles.

For more than two decades, the men have been on opposite sides of a zoning dispute that has dragged on through six presidencies, countless attorneys and well into their middle-age years. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is believed to have been built in a shorter period of time.

At its core, the dispute over an airstrip on Harrison's farm northeast of Mount Airy is quite simple:

Schwartz leads a group of neighbors fighting to keep the airfield closed, citing numerous fatalities and accidents involving sky-diving, gliders and aircraft.

Harrison is dug in just as deep, defending his right to continue operating the airfield his father started in 1972.

Without its extra income, said Harrison, a fifth-generation farmer, his 172-acre farm may not survive.

No state records are kept on the length of zoning disputes. But George Beisser, past president of the Maryland Association of Zoning Officials and Carroll County's zoning administrator, said the case of Harrison's airfield is easily the longest battle in the county and one of the longest in the state.

On Tuesday, the latest, and perhaps final, chapter is expected to end when the Board of Zoning Appeals decides whether Harrison can reopen for business.

"I want this thing settled. I want to work it out," Harrison, 45, said hopefully.

Harrison was a teen-ager when airplanes started landing on his family's open fields. But it was not until 1972 that the county gave his father permission to operate a grassy 100-by-1,650-foot runway as a private airstrip and drop zone for sky-diving.

Soon after, problems with neighbors began. Parachutists sometimes missed the drop zone, landing in nearby crops, back yards and horse pastures, said Schwartz, who moved to his 22-acre farm off Woodbine Road in 1973.

In September 1978, a Rockville police sergeant was killed in a parachute jump when he landed in a tree.

From chutes to gliders

By 1980, glider pilots, drawn by the winds spilling down from the Appalachian foothills and warm updrafts rising off nearby wheat fields, replaced sky-divers. Some gliders used these favorable conditions to climb more than 10,000 feet at times, Harrison said.

But the gliders created new problems for the area's growing population. One nearby resident complained to county zoning officials in 1982 that the airfield had spawned 90 flights a day.

On holidays and weekends, neighbors cringed listening all day to aircraft circling the field, their engines straining with gliders in tow.

Other neighbors reported that tow-lines -- dangling behind planes once the gliders were released -- pulled shingles off a roof, tore down fences and sent farm workers scurrying for cover.

In 1982, a tow pilot and his passenger were killed.

That year, residents pressured the Board of Zoning Appeals into reopening the case, and the board ruled that the glider operation was a "far cry" from what had been approved in 1972. If Harrison wanted a glider port, he would have to reapply, the board said.

Harrison and the operator of the glider port sued.

The case dragged on for 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.

"It took me a week to see all the pieces of the puzzle," said Isaac Menasche, attorney for the Board of Zoning Appeals.

To explain, Menasche took a pen and began diagraming the path of the dispute. He sketched a rectangle marked 1972, the year the Harrisons won approval for the parachute drop and private airport. Below it, he drew a straight line leading to a box marked 1982, the year neighbors appealed the 1972 decision.

He continued with a third box and a fourth box, followed by branches leading to two more boxes with dates and decisions, with more branches, boxes and dates. Lines crossed or led to dead ends. Others swerved or reversed themselves. He scribbled for five minutes, until he held up an illustration that resembled computer chip circuitry.

Displaying his work, he said: "You asked, why did it take so long?"

All through the legal battles, the glider port and airfield continued to operate. In 1986, a glider crash killed a pilot and passenger.

When the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in his favor in August 1996, Schwartz thought he had succeeded.

But the county did not close the field until March 1997, after a glider crash injured a pilot and passenger.

For Harrison, it was only a temporary setback. He immediately began working his way up the levels of government bureaucracy to open his airfield again.

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