Zoning law sought for use of helicopters

Neighbors criticize businessman who uses helipad near homes

County hearing scheduled

Aerial shuttle service between Va. and Pa. also proposed

May 14, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

When multimillionaire Steve Walker wants to go to his Rehoboth, Del., vacation home, he enters a janitor's closet in his Glenwood office building, climbs a rude wooden ladder through a hatch in the roof, and flies away in one of his two Bell Jet Ranger helicopters.

The western Howard County resident has been doing that for nearly a year and he wants county officials to make it legal, despite complaints from some residents.

Walker, a former government computer security specialist who sold his high-tech company for an estimated $300 million in 1998, likes helicopter travel so much that he's trying to start a business called Capitol Rising, shuttling executives around the area -- roof to roof -- from Richmond, Va., to Fairfax County, Va., to Philadelphia. The helipad atop his western Howard building -- next to his family's home -- would be for his personal use only, he said.

"The issue, really, is this kind of thing going to cause people problems? Why shouldn't somebody be able to do this?" he asked.

"There's a bunch of businesses doing just what I'm doing," he added, arguing that his helicopter makes less noise than a loud lawn mower, and lands and takes off quickly, avoiding the large homes behind his offices. The two helicopters are stored at a Montgomery County airport.

Walker, 56, said he isn't one of those arrogant rich people intent on doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants -- regardless of the concerns of others, or the expense.

"I'd really rather do this right. There's good ways and bad ways," the executive said, drawing a contrast between his attitude and that of former Rite Aid Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Martin L. Grass.

Grass commuted daily by helicopter from his Green Spring Valley home in Baltimore County to Harrisburg, Pa., for several years, ignoring the complaints from neighbors and the fines and citations from the Baltimore County zoning office. He continued commuting until his recent ouster.

Walker is a 30-year Howard County resident and father of six who turned his first business, a basement consulting company, into a 250-employee company. He helped create a day care center for his employees in a smaller building he owns on his 20-acre plot.

His new firm, Steve Walker Associates, invests in start-up companies, he said, and he also uses his helicopters to attend business meetings, many of which are in Northern Virginia.

Steve and Brenda Walker and their three younger children live in a historic, 19th-century house a few feet south of the office building. They've bought a huge new home in the Wellington development a stone's throw away, where the Walkers will live while their old house is under renovation.

He's taking a low-key approach to the subject of personal helicopter travel.

Walker wrote a letter to his neighbors this month in an attempt to explain himself and reassure them that the helicopter is safe and relatively quiet. He has hired a lawyer to draft a proposed set of regulations that would include helicopters in Howard's zoning regulations for the first time.

The county planning board has scheduled a hearing for June 14.

"Think of all the complaining when the first Model-A Ford rumbled into town," said Bob Buss, Walker's pilot.

Cars whizzing up and down Route 97 are potentially more dangerous than his helicopter, Walker said, noting that he flies three or four times a week.

Some appreciate his attitude.

"I give Mr. Walker a lot of credit for being very, very upfront, telling us what his plans are and telling us he's willing to work with us," said Duncan Brown, president of the Wellington Homeowners Association.

Not everyone is a fan.

"If there were to be an accident, it could be fatal," said Ann Sperry, who lives with her family 200 yards from Walker's building.

"We bought 3 acres hoping to be out in the country raising our children. It's pretty darn close. It's very, very unsafe," Sperry said.

Peggy Squires, who lives several miles away in Fulton, worries about numerous helicopters she sees flying over the proposed mixed-use development planned near her. A former aircraft company employee, Squires said a helicopter collision with a flock of birds in South Dakota decades ago killed her boss and five co-workers.

"We've got birds with huge wingspans here, and a big pond that attracts geese. Helicopters will not only be disruptive, but also a recipe for disaster," she said.

Jean Riley, who runs the day care program for Walker, said she's not worried about children's safety. "There are much greater safety problems from vehicles on Route 97," she said.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard planning director, said county zoning laws are inclusive, and because Howard's don't refer to helicopters, they are not legal for personal use. "It's not permitted," he said.

The county has notified Walker about residents' complaints, Rutter added.

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