Carroll airfield can reopen, but with limited operations Gliders won't be allowed, appeals panel decides

November 20, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Planes but not gliders will fly again at Woodbine Airfield.

The county's longest zoning battle -- which has dragged through six presidencies, numerous attorneys and weeks of testimony -- ended another round yesterday with the Board of Zoning Appeals granting Michael R. Harrison permission to run an airport on his South Carroll farm.

Since the 1970s, neighbors of the grass airstrip northeast of Mount Airy have fought to close the airfield, noting numerous fatalities and accidents involving sky-diving, gliders and aircraft.

Harrison, a fifth-generation county farmer, has defended his right to land aircraft on his 172-acre farm, saying he needed the income to keep his cattle operation in business.

The three-member board anguished over both sides' arguments for more than three hours yesterday before voting unanimously to allow the airfield to reopen -- with a long list of restrictions.

At the top of that list is a prohibition against gliders, which residents said created the most danger in their growing suburban neighborhood.

In an effort to control the number of aircraft, the board restricted the airport operation, including hangars and aircraft tie-downs, to one-half acre. The restriction does not include the runway.

The airfield is also limited to ownership and operation by Harrison. A new owner would be required to reapply for permission to operate the airfield.

In the past, courts have ruled that local governments cannot place restrictions on airport operations and that only state and federal agencies have control. That fact frustrated board members.

"I will vote against it or put restrictions on it. I'm willing to do that, but I'm not sure if it's legal," said board member James Schumacher.

Fearing that a court could rule to let the airfield operate without restrictions, the board added one more condition: If any restriction is revoked, the airport would be required to close.

Airfield opponents were not pleased with the decision, which they believe has a shaky legal foundation and did not resolve the issue.

"How legal is [the decision]? I don't know," said Bernard A. Schwartz, who leads a group of about 30 neighbors fighting the airfield. "It's not yes. It's not no. That's how it's been for the last 20 years."

Harrison was heartened by the board's decision, saying he could operate an airfield with restrictions.

"Just watch what I do," he said.

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.

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 to reopen 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.

When the courts initially agreed with Robert Harrison, Schwartz, who lives about 500 yards from the airfield, filed a countersuit. After 12 years of litigation, the courts sided with Schwartz.

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

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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