County seeking to cut trees

Airport proposal aims to help pilots, but environmental concerns remain

October 14, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Carroll County officials will seek permission Tuesday to harvest about 330 trees along the sight of a planned runway expansion at the Westminster-area regional airport. The proposal, which will be made at a public hearing, is an effort to override a denial by the local forestry board.

The trees are in a conservation zone and can be cut to clear airspace obstructions under state law, but Carroll's forest management plan has more stringent requirements, county attorney Kimberly L. Millender said.

But the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that the trees should be harvested to install a precision lighting system and improve visibility as pilots take off and land, said Cindy Parr, county chief of administrative services.

"The variance is needed for us to comply with an FAA directive," Parr said of the tree-harvesting request. "It's required for the safe and efficient operation of the airport."

As the commissioners approved a controversial multimillion-dollar plan to expand the Carroll County Regional Airport in June, activists said the tree-cutting proposal showed the runway expansion would harm the local environment. Those residents persuaded county officials to postpone the timber harvest this summer.

With 150,000 flights taking off and landing at the airport annually, removing the trees is necessary even if the airport's runway is never rebuilt, Parr said. She said the county had planned to complete the installation of a new lighting system along the runway since updating the 20-year airport master plan in 1986. A 2003 obstruction study re-emphasized the need for timber harvest to better guide pilots landing at night.

"You can't fire up the ... system until the trees are gone," Parr said.

Part of the system has been installed, but it can't be expanded until the obstructions are removed, said Gary Horst, a senior auditor with the county office of management analysis.

"It's just a safety enhancement," Horst said.

The runway enhancements in the county's updated 20-year airport plan are on hold as the commissioners await an environmental assessment of the proposed expansion, to be completed over the next two years.

The commissioners awarded the $800,000 assessment contract to Richmond, Va.-based Delta Airport Consultants. Delta consultants also completed the 2003 obstruction study.

Activists opposed to the expansion had hoped that the tree harvesting would be delayed until the airport environmental study is completed. They worried that removing those tree canopies would harm wildlife and threaten the wooded area's streams by increasing storm water runoff.

Airport expansion opponents were scheduled to air their concerns before a federal aviation official Friday. But Terry Page, the FAA director for the region, canceled the meeting because residents didn't submit their list of questions beforehand, organizer Rebekah Orenstein said.

The meeting likely could be rescheduled, Parr said.

Residents also persuaded county chief of staff Steve Powell to reschedule Tuesday's midday public hearing for the evening so that residents could air their concerns after work, Millender said.

If Powell, who will be the hearing officer, doesn't grant the county special permission to harvest the trees, airport officials will go back to the drawing board. Perhaps they could develop a mitigation plan to replant the number of trees that are harvested, Millender said.

Carroll's forest ordinance states that "70 square feet of basal area" must remain per acre after any trees are harvested. The basal area is the sum of the remaining trees' diameters. State law, however, only requires a basal area of 25 feet after clear-cutting, county officials said.

"Our regulations are just more restrictive," Parr said. "If this were happening at another airport, I don't think it would be an issue."

Nearly half of the 330 trees to be harvested are diseased with oak blight or dying, Parr said. She had said the trees are to be cut until 3 to 4 feet of each remain, allowing them to regenerate. Greenwood Products of Gettysburg is expected to pay the county $12,500 for the harvested timber, Parr said.

"It has absolutely nothing to do with the expansion project," she said of the trees.

The tree-harvest hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the county office building in Westminster, Room 003. For more information, contact Cindy Parr, 410-386-2043.

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