Airport safety, growth at issue

Planned $60 million expansion opposed by citizens' group

September 24, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,sun reporter

They carried homemade posters: "Keep Carroll County rural ... No airport expansion" and "No carbon copy of Montgomery County" and called out questions to state and federal aviation officials at a meeting to discuss airport safety and security.

The approximately 75 Carroll residents who attended a meeting at Winters Mill High School last week denounced a proposed $60 million expansion of the Carroll County Regional Airport, while aviation officials came to address surveillance and homeland security.

For many of the residents, these concerns were intertwined with the expansion.

"There's no one there [at night], no security personnel there," said Ron Buczkowski, chair of the Carroll Joint Neighborhood Association, a group opposed to the expansion. "How can you make the residents of the county feel safe with the existing runway?"

Residents pointed to an August incident in which airport fences were cut, the locks of airplane hangars tampered with and several gallons of gasoline were stolen, police and county officials said.

"How did it get broken into, and what exactly was taken and vandalized?" Linda Naugle, a Westminster resident, asked.

Kirk Noaker, a federal air marshal with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, said that authorities wouldn't comment on the investigation.

As part of the airport's master plan, the county is considering extending the 5,100-foot runway by 1,400 feet to accommodate larger planes. The master plan also calls for the construction of more corporate hangars, while razing and rebuilding the aging hangars that house smaller planes.

A draft of the airport's master plan will be completed by Dec. 31, according to Joseph Varrone, the county's performance auditing administrator.

Even without an expansion, the existing runway would need refurbishing by fiscal year 2013, county spokeswoman Vivian D. Laxton said recently.

"We'll have to either fix it or expand it, and when you fix it, it shuts down a year," she said.

Most of the $60 million for the project would come from the Federal Aviation Administration and state funds. Only about $1.5 million in county funds would be required, Varrone said.

If the county says no to FAA now, it may be a decade before any runway expansion, he said.

One of the chief concerns is how to monitor the airport's 477 acres, officials said. To purchase a surveillance system, $700,000 has been budgeted for this year. An emergency generator for the airport has been purchased with homeland security funds, Varrone said.

"Are you going to cover the entire airport with security cameras?" resident Rene Forsberg asked Brad Anderson, a professional services engineer with the Avrio Group, who was on the panel. Avrio is expected to bid on the surveillance contract.

Without live, 24-hour security, Forsberg said she didn't feel safe.

The expansion could make Carroll County more of a security asset rather than a risk, county officials have said. In the event of a regional evacuation, a larger airport in Westminster "could be a real benefit to the community, another way out," Varrone said.

Ashish Solanki, director of regional aviation at the Maryland Aviation Administration, echoed those sentiments.

"You're equating greater traffic and greater risk," Solanki told the residents. "You have to look at the broader perspective."

Following the meeting, Buczkowski e-mailed the county commissioners, urging them to put the airport master plan on hold and reject the runway extension project.

Meetings and public hearings on the plan will be scheduled in January and February before the commissioners are expected to adopt a plan in March, Varrone said.

"It's not a done deal," Laxton said. "We don't even know what board will be voting on this."

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