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Essex Skypark: Hey, Not So Fast

- by Diane Carliner -

from the East County Times, February 9, 2012

It is no secret around town that Vince Gardina, Director of the County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, wants to tear down the airpark and use the space for planting trees. But 1,000 protest signatures have been collected. The 500,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has climbed on board to dissent, and complaints about Gardinas project have been lodged from as far away as Germany and Sweden.

Essex Skypark is the last small airport left standing in Baltimore County. Known to cognoscenti as a general aviation facility, it houses 45 airplanes and three banner planes. The Civil Air Patrol has been meeting on the premises since 2003. Famous for search and rescue missions, the CAP also helps students obtain scholarships.

The international Experimental Aircraft Association meets on site, too. Its Young Eagles Program gives kids ages 8-17 basic information about flying weather, aerodynamics and safety. Members build their own airplanes from various materials including composites, and sometimes fly their creations to the annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin convention.

The Skypark is home base as well for the Fire Department to test equipment and for a Boy Scout troop. Astronaut Tom Jones began his flight career there. Yours truly took lessons in a Cessna 152 (single engine) in the 1980s. Martin State Airport folks were asked if they would incorporate Essex Skypark within their own operations but declined. Martins is only interested in bigger birds and bigger bucks.

According to Brian Dolan, Financial Chairman of the non-profit Essex Skypark Association, the airpark does not cost the county one nickel. The Essex Skypark Association pays rent to Baltimore County and does upkeep on the property, which Baltimore County has owned since 2000. An Association member was recently late in signing the lease for renewal due to an innocent misunderstanding about the backdating terminology contained in the lease. It appears that Gardina seized this opportunity to promote his forestry objectives.

Dolan said many improvements have recently been made to the airport, such as a new runway built in 2006 and lights added in 2009. Both projects were financed by grants from the State of Maryland with the Association carrying 10 percent of the cost. Work was started this past August to repair storm damage to the community hangar. The Association paid for renovation to the restrooms, which also started in August. We would not have been doing all that if we thought we didnt have a lease. I wonder how many other people have made unintentional mistakes in lease procedures with the county, Dolan contended.

Concerning the environmental controversy, Gardina wrote the airport is not compatible with protecting natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay, because it fragments the Back River Neck Peninsula forest which protects small birds migrating to South America. In addition, the county needs to meet pollution abatement requirements for storm water permit requests for future county capital projects. By converting the 40 acres of land cleared for the existing Skypark to forest, the county could remove 227.5 pounds of nitrogen, saving $252,070 and 16.2 pounds of phosphorous, saving $144,010.

Allen Robertson, Zoning Chairman of the Bowleys Quarters Community Association, offered his take on Gardinas research. The County would be better served by not granting so many variances to developers, he opined. These variances create the need for all this mitigation. For example, the county, including the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, has approved property allowing construction of homes within 17 feet of the tidal water and condos 50 feet from tidal water.

A better use for the Mitigation Fund would be the purchase and reforestation of farm fields for sale in Bowleys Quarters, rather than eliminating an amenity enjoyed by the citizens of Baltimore County such as Essex Skypark.

A bill drafted by Delegates Rick Impallaria and Pat McDonough, R-7, for keeping the airpark seems to have caused Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to take notice. A closed meeting was held in Annapolis on Feb. 1 by him with the 6th, 7th and 8th Districts legislative representatives.

Senator Norman Stone, who is drafting a bill in the Maryland Senate to put the Essex Skypark into historic preservation in perpetuity, came away from the meeting thinking positively. I believe the county executive realizes the Skypark is needed for people with small planes. My impression is there will be a lease between the Essex Skypark and the county, he stated. McDonough said the pro-Skypark faction has hired attorney Carroll Holzer, and the next step is to see the forthcoming lease.

A petition to save the Skypark can be signed at www.essexskyparkassn.org.

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