SNOW HILL – Six Worcester County Commissioners voted against any expansion of the Ocean City Municipal Airport beyond its existing borders this week, with Commissioner Louise Gulyas, the resort’s representative, holding onto her support for the project.
Worcester County Administrator Gerry Mason suggested that the commissioners take a stand on the controversial airport expansion at the end of Tuesday’s meeting in Snow Hill.
“It may be time for the county to state its position.” Mason told the County Commissioners.
The commissioners voted 6 to 1 to oppose the expansion of the airport’s runways, which would require the relocation of Route 611 and the displacement of four homes.
Proponents of the plan say expansion is necessary for safety and to retain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding.
Commissioner Bud Church, who represents West Ocean City and is a member of the board at the Salisbury-Ocean City Regional Airport in Wicomico County, made the motion to oppose expanding Ocean City’s airport.
“I will oppose that simply because I believe the airport is economic development for our area,” said Gulyas. “I think the Ocean City airport should be the best general aviation airport here on the shore.”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan agrees with Gulyas, saying, “It’s important to economic development in Ocean City and West Ocean City.”
Businesses could be encouraged to locate in the county with the availability of more air service, Gulyas added.
Gulyas scoffed at the idea that the Ocean City airport is in competition with the Salisbury facility, which itself is undergoing major changes. She did not find any support among her fellow commissioners, however, and the proposed redesign of Route 611 was a major reason.
“I’m certainly not in favor of the relocation of 611,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.
Area residents “would be majorly impacted by the change. I support Commissioner Church’s motion,” said Commissioner Linda Busick.
A recent public meeting on the plan generated approximately 17 negative comments, and only one in favor, she noted.
“I made the public statement I would not support any expansion dealing with 611,” Commissioner Virgil Shockley said. “It’s too much money, too much land disturbance, way too much.”
Commissioner Bob Cowger, said that he had to go with the feeling of the people in the area and oppose the expansion.
Commission President Jim Purnell said he had gotten numerous calls and letters opposing the changes. He also expressed his concern that the affected families would not be properly compensated.
Meehan said that the FAA would compensate for value of property and moving expenses. The FAA did that previously with the relocation of some trailer park residents west of Route 611 for a runway safety zone.
Church said that in his experience with the Salisbury airport, people seldom receive more than the appraised value of their property and some moving expenses, which would not be enough for those families to purchase new homes in northern Worcester County.
“Those four families are going to be displaced,” said Church, who owns a real estate office in Ocean City.
Extending the north-south runway would put more aircraft in the sky over local residential neighborhoods, Meehan said, and the airport would like to avoid that.
Meehan assured the commissioners that their vote in opposition to the proposed project would not go unheeded, and that he would take their decision back to the Ocean City town council. Meehan added Ocean City is not looking to get into a fight with Worcester County.
“We respect your opinion and the airport is located in Worcester County,” said Meehan. “We want to be your partners in this venture.”
Shockley, who used to fly out of that airport, said he looked at the county’s maps of the airport and concluded that changes could be made within the existing property.
“I would be in favor of looking at something on site,” Shockley said.
Shockley said Boggs what he had in mind, and she said this week she supported it.
“What he showed me looked doable to me,” said Boggs.
Church agreed that confining improvements to the airport property would be acceptable, reiterating that his concerns are over the longer runways and additional flights over residential neighborhoods.
Shockley said it’s Ocean City’s business what’s done on the municipal property, but he reiterated the county does not want anything done other than on city land.
“I just don’t want them going across Route 611. I don’t care what they do on their property,” Shockley said.
It is not clear who would make the final decision, the Ocean City Town Council or the FAA.
“I think the decision is the Mayor and Council’s,” said Worcester County Attorney Ed Hammond.
If the FAA decides the expansion must go ahead to satisfy safety concerns, the county would be helpless, Shockley said.
“Quite frankly, they’re going to do it,” he said.
Route 611 is a state road, while the airport is located within the county. The expansion would need land to be rezoned, which is ultimately the commissioners’ decision.
“If the county wants to be obstructionist, sure there are all kinds of things we could do,” said Hammond.