Joint-use plan for APG airfield suspended

Security concerns noted in Harford Co.'s decision about civilian-military mix

October 18, 2001|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Noting residents' heightened concerns about airplanes and security, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins said yesterday that he was suspending plans indefinitely for joint civilian-military use of Phillips Army Airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Given what's going on nationally ... I think it's prudent to put it on hold," he said.

Harkins said he made the decision yesterday after talking with county residents and meeting with Dr. Gunther Hirsch, County Council president, an opponent of the joint-use plan.

"The decision was mutually agreeable," Hirsch said. "I feel Mr. Harkins did the right thing."

Aberdeen Proving Ground's garrison commander, Col. Mardi U. Mark, learned about the decision yesterday before attending a County Council meeting to discuss APG security issues, said garrison spokesman George Mercer.

"We were waiting for their feasibility study anyway," Mercer said. "This really hasn't changed our position. It takes it off our calendar for the moment."

But Ron Roz, president of Citizens for Plane Answers, the group leading a community fight against the plan, expressed tepid support for the announcement.

"I think it's very nice that Mr. Harkins suspended it, but he ought to go one step further and put it to bed, not ever do it," said Roz. "It just puts too many people at risk."

The idea of shared civilian-military use of the airfield has been around for 15 to 20 years, said Hirsch. The Army has viewed it as a way to reduce maintenance costs on the airfield, while the county thought its use for civilian cargo and corporate planes would give the area an economic boost.

But community debate intensified in January with county passage of a bill to create a quasi-independent airport authority to run the facility, which is in the Aberdeen area of the proving ground. Residents raised concerns ranging from the number of planes that would use the airfield daily to the threat that a crash would pose to chemical and biological material stored nearby in the Edgewood area.

A petition drive seeking to put the issue on the county ballot next November drew 3,000 more signatures than needed, but was rejected by county attorneys on technical grounds.

In May, the council passed a new measure allowing for appointment of an airport authority only after a consultant conducted a feasibility study and the results were reviewed by the public and the council.

Deputy County Attorney Robert McCord said the consultant for the $400,000 feasibility study had been chosen, but the county had received no money from the Federal Aviation Administration.

McCord said Harkins' decision was an appropriate use of his executive power. "He has the authority to decide how quickly to proceed with studying the issue," he said.

J. Thomas Sadowski, economic development director for the county, said Harkins made a wise decision.

"It's of significant importance to the community, but right now, there are other things at APG requiring our attention," he said.

Sadowski added that several military construction projects are under way on the installation and that the county tries to support the proving ground on such goals.

Harkins said the Phillips proposal requires a "lot of time and coordination." Since Sept. 11, though, the administration's daily focus has shifted.

"Every day I spend a goodly part of my day on security issues. The timing of anything has to be appropriate," he said. "We've got a bigger focus right now. There will be another time for" the airfield proposal.

But residents remain concerned.

"If [Harkins] is just suspending the proposal until `America gets back to normal' and pops it up again," Roz said, "we've got a problem, because the same concerns are there."

He said his group's lawsuit against the county, seeking to overturn the legal department's rejection of its petitions, will go forward in Harford Circuit Court at 2 p.m. today. "We're definitely going to make it a political issue," he said.

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