Finding calm in midst of airport's rumbling

Comforting: BWI Trail, conceived to appease neighbors upset by the deafening noise of a busy airport, has become a sanctuary for many nearby residents.

October 31, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Glen Burnie minister Hal Selstad finds peace in a place where airliners swoop low every few minutes, filling the sky with such a loud rumble that he can't hear himself talk.

He finds calm at the base of the 12 1/2 -mile trail that encircles Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He comes here at mid-morning, three times each week. On a crisp fall day, wearing dress shoes, a windbreaker and a tie, he begins near the end of the runway, so close to the planes that at times he says he can see the pilot's face.

"Often, it's just a good opportunity for me to pray," said Selstad, the senior pastor at Granite Baptist Church.

BWI Trail was completed in 1999 to appease neighbors upset by the deafening noise of planes overhead. Since then, it has become a sanctuary of sorts for those who live around the airport.

In the last two months, travelers haven't found BWI a soothing place. Inside, anxious passengers wait in crowded lines for security personnel to question them. Outside the terminal, thousands of cars queue to navigate a maddening obstacle course of orange cones and narrow ramps - a result of the of the airport's $1.8 billion expansion.

As if those aggravations weren't enough, the airport has evacuated its piers twice in the past two weeks for suspicious items that turned out to be false alarms.

None of that anxiety is evident at the BWI Trail's Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Aircraft Observation Area, named for the neighborhood activist who helped get it built.

"I feel safe here," said Candy Moos, 33, of Severn. "There are always other moms here."

Her daughters, Cari, 6, and Ali, 5, ask to go to the place that they - and most other children who go there -call "the airport park."

When a plane lands, the girls join the other children in a communal shriek as it passes over their playground. Some make a racket jumping up and down on the equipment.

Even the adults pause to marvel at the scene. Henry Wills stops on his bike. Jim McFadyen watches from his wheelchair. Nearby, his grandson, Braeden, 3, stops playing and looks up, too.

"They're so low, so loud, it kind of hurts your ears a little bit," said Wills, a retired Fort Meade employee who lives in Brooklyn Park. "I find it kind of exciting."

Denise Roseberry's daughter, Rebecca, 2 1/2 , has always loved the planes, but the last time she brought her children to the Dixon observation area, her 7-month-old son, Daniel, also seemed enthralled from his stroller.

"He was actually turning his head around and watching them," said Roseberry, a member of the MOMS Club of Glen Burnie, which meets at the trail.

These visitors are what Michael J. Wagner, 60, envisioned when he suggested the airport trail in the early 1990s. Wagner, then a state senator representing Ferndale, approached O. James Lighthizer, who was the Maryland Secretary of Transportation. As the airport grew, so did the communities surrounding it. And as flights increased, so did complaints about noise and traffic.

Lighthizer, Anne Arundel executive from 1982 to 1990, knew that while the airport is a vital engine of economic growth, "it can be a very obnoxious neighbor."

A longtime advocate of land conservation, he oversaw in the 1980s the construction of B&A Trail, which runs from Glen Burnie to Annapolis. He liked the idea of giving something back to residents.

But Lighthizer took Wagner's idea a step further, suggesting that the airport trail connect with the B&A. Sections opened gradually, and in 1999, the complete BWI Trail opened, bringing to the area a pleasant asphalt path that winds past trees and businesses.

"And it's been used, from the get-go," said Wagner, a longtime Ferndale resident who remembers collecting turtles and frogs where planes now land. "It was just something to say, `Hey, the airport's friendly. We're trying to interact with the community.' And in these days of tearing down trees and building skyscrapers, it's turned out to be a really neat thing."

The Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks patrols and manages the trail, while the airport maintains it. County and state officials say the trail is the only one in the country that surrounds an airport.

When airport spokesman John White attends community meetings in north and west Anne Arundel County, questions about the trail always come up.

In late February, BWI closed a 2-mile section from Aviation Boulevard to its international pier because of construction. "Our first thought was, we'd better let the neighbors know," White said.

He said no plans exist to close any additional part of the trail as part of the airport's new security measures. David Dionne, the county's trails superintendent, said having residents on the trail enhances airport security because they report suspicious activity.

Even before the Dixon observation area was built, residents would drive onto the field there and watch planes land. Sometimes, Wagner said, hundreds of cars showed up. But during the days when the planes were grounded after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, the cars stayed home.

For Candy Moos and the other mothers-most of whom live along the airport's flight path - the rumble of planes overhead is normal, even soothing. They waited for the planes to return.

Selstad hadn't planned it, but he went to the trail Sept. 12. He stayed in his car, just drove around, felt the quiet.

The horror of Sept. 11 still weighs on him. But walking around the trail, with the planes overhead, is somehow comforting.

"We're rolling again," he said, looking up. "We get up, we get going and we get on with our lives."

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