Tipton Airport gets new idea on where to build T-hangars

Environmental issues have stymied search

March 25, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

First, a rare plant got in Tipton Airport's way. Then, a floodplain blocked its plans. Now, the airport's engineers say they have found a way to build long-sought, garage-like hangars on the former Army airfield.

The site should look familiar to pilots watching the T-hangar developments. It's the same field that airport board members first flagged as ideal for the hangars more than two years ago - the one they were ready to write off because of the endangered, spiky-thistled plant sprouting from a ditch in the middle of it.

The new plan is to split the field, saving part as a sanctuary for the plant while building on the rest.

T-hangars, named for their shape, are important to small airports because they attract affluent pilots who can afford the $375 monthly rent to protect planes from the elements. More than 160 pilots are on the waiting list for the 40 proposed hangars at Tipton.

Tipton Airport Authority's board members wanted to build the hangars in the airport's western quadrant, an open field between an unused control tower and a former Army fire station. But last year, an environmental consultant conducting an ecological survey found Juncus polycephalus, a rare form of rush - the only such plant thought to grow in Maryland - in the middle of the field.

The find was surprising, especially considering that Tipton - with the rest of Fort Meade - had been named to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of the nation's most hazardous sites in 1998. The EPA took Tipton off the list the next year, when ownership of the airport was transferred to Anne Arundel County.

"When they found the plant, I think there was an assumption that the field had been written off," said Tipton board member and spokesman David Almy.

In January, after county officials refused to let the board construct T-hangars on another site because it was in a floodplain, Almy and the board sent Tipton's engineering firm, Talbert & Bright of Chesterfield, Va., back to the drawing board.

"I said, `We need to go back to earth, fire and water - the basics - to reassess where to put these,'" Almy said. "We're not giving up."

At last week's authority meeting, Talbert engineer Steven Peterson presented his new twist on an old idea: Use the western half of the field where the Juncus grows to build the T-hangars, and keep the eastern half as a permanent sanctuary for the plant.

The plan has at least one obstacle - the western side of the field contains wetlands. Authority members say that's surmountable. In exchange for using the field, they plan to propose to state environmental regulators that they create wetlands elsewhere on the 366-acre property.

"We will need to explain in detail to them why we can't build somewhere else," Tipton chairman Dennis McCoy told other board members at the meeting.

Afterward, McCoy said Tipton was at least two years away from renting its first T-hangar. He plans meetings with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, but is unsure how long the process will take.

"We basically have concerns that the environmental constants here foreclose on construction for much of the 366 acres here," he said. "Of the possibilities for the hangars, only one is realistic, and we're going to work that one out with a state agency."

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