Pilots to fight zoning changes

Developers wants homes to replace small airfield

`Would be a hassle'

Some on Arundel council, planner against proposal

Laurel

December 15, 2003|By Rona Kobell and Ryan Davis | Rona Kobell and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The pilots at Suburban Airport nearly lost their runway once - when the federal government grounded operations at the Laurel airfield for 100 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Now, with the nearly 54-acre airport about to be sold to a developer, they fear they are about to lose it again - this time for good.

The Polm Cos., a Millersville-based developer, wants to build 641 townhouses and condominiums on the spit of land off Brock Bridge Road in the westernmost corner of Anne Arundel County. Priced between $190,000 and $300,000, the homes are being marketed as "workforce housing" - ideal, Polm says, for teachers, firefighters and police officers.

Today, Polm representatives plan to ask the Anne Arundel County Council to pave the way for a change in the airport's zoning - from allowing one house for each 2 acres to permitting denser development. Pilots and residents of Laurel and Maryland City say they will be at the meeting, too, voicing their opposition.

"We're all dead set against it," said pilot Tim Bruner, who is part of the Old Buzzards Evermore, a group of older pilots who frequent Suburban's shabby lounge, drinking coffee and chatting about airplanes.

"Most everybody here lives within five miles of this airport," Bruner added, "so it would be a hassle to move their planes someplace else."

In a written description of the community, which would be called Riverwood, Polm states that the pilots could move their planes to general aviation airports nearby and eliminate the noise generated by Suburban.

In addition, Polm consultant John Pantelides said, affordable homes are desperately needed in Anne Arundel County, where the average home price is more than $280,000.

"If we're serious about doing it, here's an opportunity to do it," Pantelides said.

But community leaders say airport noise was never a big issue - and has been even less of one since Sept. 11, 2001, because the airport lost some of its business, including its flight school, after the federal government shut it down because of its proximity to Washington's restricted airspace.

"We have no problems with the way the airport is set up right now," said Maryland City Civic Association Vice President Raymond H. Szyperski.

Traffic worries

What troubles Szyperski and others in Maryland City - a horseshoe-shaped community off Route 198 near Laurel Park -is what they consider the area's overdevelopment.

In the 1990s, community association officials welcomed Russett, a 3,000-home development along Route 198.

Even though community leaders acknowledge Russett added to congestion, they praised its builders for constructing a water treatment plant that enabled many residents to switch from well water to public water. The builders also made significant road improvements, said Maryland City Civic Association President Ray Smallwood.

Polm is proposing improvements for Brock Bridge Road, but Smallwood, who is also the town's fire chief, says the flood-prone, two-lane road can't handle more traffic. Brock Bridge Road was closed Friday from Route 197 to the airport, with one car stuck on the flooded road.

Airport manager Charles Crew Sr., whose wife's family has owned the facility for 50 years, said Suburban has unofficially been for sale for much of its life. But until Polm came along, he said, no one had offered a fair price for the property, which is assessed for tax purposes at $775,000.

Last summer, one of Suburban's pilots made an offer on the property and, with the help of other pilots, had planned to refurbish the airport's hangars and trailers. The offer was rejected, said Michael Cummins, a Suburban pilot familiar with the negotiations.

When the pilots learned of the Polm deal last week, they mobilized quickly, writing to County Council members and meeting with airport lobbyists and civic association leaders.

"I did a little bit of Paul Revere-ing, but it took a while to get the word out," said Cummins, a 36-year-old information security consultant who lives in College Park. "They're trying to shut down a 50-year-old airport on the 100th anniversary of flight. It's very ironic."

The proposal faces a steep challenge at today's meeting. To propose a zoning change, one of the seven council members must introduce an amendment, and as of Friday, no one had done so.

Even if a member introduces the amendment, four council members must support it. And three say they won't. Council members Pamela G. Beidle and Barbara D. Samorajczyk, both Democrats, oppose the plan. Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks said he would abstain because he co-owns a plane at Suburban.

Councilman Bill D. Burlison, whose district includes Suburban, said he is undecided.

Anne Arundel County Planning Officer Joseph W. Rutter Jr. doesn't support the plan either, noting Brock Bridge Road's floods and the area's inability to handle more traffic.

"Locating these small airports is very difficult," he said, "and protecting the ones that are there is a good thing to do."

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