Decision on glider dispute is postponed Airport owner says he will amend request before zoning panel

September 30, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A Woodbine farmer sought yesterday to end a decades-old dispute with his neighbors by giving up his desire to resume glider operations on his property.

The county Board of Zoning Appeals had been expected to decide yesterday whether Michael R. Harrison would be allowed to resume glider operations on his 172-acre farm. His glider port has been closed since March 1997, when a glider crashed there, slightly injuring the pilot and a passenger.

But in a surprise move yesterday, Harrison asked the board to reopen the latest round of hearings in the 3-decade-old case to allow him to read "a two-sentence letter that would make your decision easier."

Westminster attorney Brian M. Bowersox, who represents a group of Woodbine residents opposed to glider port operations, objected to reopening the hearing.

"Most of my clients are not here. My expert witness is not here. The case is closed," Bowersox said.

Bowersox suggested that if the board were to reopen the case, it would be unfair to do so until protesting residents could be present to offer rebuttal testimony.

Board Chairman James L. Schumacher put the decision in Harrison's hands. If Harrison was willing to pay the cost of advertising another hearing, the board would reopen the case at a later date, he said.

Harrison, who was not represented by an attorney, paused.

How much would he have to pay, he asked.

"Sixty or 70 dollars," he was told.

"OK. I'd like a postponement" and to reopen the case, Harrison said.

The board agreed to reopen the case without knowing what Harrison's note said. It was shared only with Bowersox and Roland D. Ross, a Woodbine resident who lives about a half-mile south of Harrison's farm.

Ross has been fighting Harrison's glider port operations for about 15 years.

Board members are not likely to see the contents of the note until the hearing reopens. No date has been set.

'For my neighbors'

The note says Harrison would "voluntarily accept a condition to ban gliders" at his airport because that is what his neighbors "testified against" and have been fighting since two fatal crashes there in the early 1980s.

"This is something for my neighbors," Harrison said afterward. "It's what they want -- although nobody came to me personally to my face and complained about the gliders."

When testifying before the board Aug. 16, Harrison said he needed income generated from the airport if he is to continue farming.

"I'd like to have an airport. I'd like to have my airport back," he said at the time. "I want to work with our community and get along. When I pass people on the road every day, I like to wave at them. A couple of people turn away from me. I want to be friends."

Harrison's willingness to ban gliders is not friendly enough for Ross.

"I don't object to him having his own airplane, but that's it," Ross said. "We don't want him to have a commercial airport. I once counted 92 flights there in one day" when Harrison was running a glider operation.

Harrison wants the board to let him open a private, commercial airport on his property. As owner of the airport, he alone would decide who would use it and what they would be charged for the privilege.

Bowersox said he doubts the board has the authority to impose a ban on gliders if it grants Harrison permission to reopen the airport.

The board can control "road access, parking access and set sight lines for the airport," Bowersox said, but "any time that plane is taxiing to land or take off, the local board has no authority. It is an area protected by federal statute."

Bowersox said he does not expect the case to begin anew when resumed or that another two days of argument and testimony will be needed to conclude it.

"But I didn't expect this," he said. "When you walk into a legal case, you never know where [it's] going to go or where it will lead you."

One surprise after another

Surprise turns seem to be the rule for this case, which began in 1972 when Harrison was a teen-ager and the board granted his father, Robert Harrison, permission to open the airport and lease to a Baltimore sky-diving club.

Neighbors began protesting a decade later. By then, the facility had become a glider port. In 1982, a tow-pilot and 20-year-old passenger were killed in a crash. Another tow-pilot and 20-year-old passenger were killed in a crash two years later, at which time the Board of Zoning Appeals sought to restrict airport operations.

Suits and countersuits followed. The case was in litigation 12 years before the courts ruled in favor of airport opponents. The airport continued to operate after that, however, and was not closed until the March 1997 glider crash.

The fact the airport remained open after the court ruling is a concern Bowersox is likely to point out to the board when the case resumes.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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