Airport Critics Rule At Expansion Hearing

Airport Critics Rule At Expansion Hearing

OCEAN CITY – At a public hearing and workshop last Thursday, over 100 citizens gathered to garner further information and voice their opinions on the future of the Ocean City Municipal Airport in West Ocean City.

The public workshop gave concerned citizens a chance to ask questions and review the proposals for the airport expansion and the recently completed environmental assessment. The public hearing gave citizens a chance to voice their opinions and concerns.

The public hearing was the next step in the airport expansion plan, a work in progress that has been evolving since 1998 when the Airport Master Plan began. The Master Plan was completed in 2002 with the goal of conforming to the current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards.

An Aviation Task Force was created at that time and consisted of West Ocean City and Ocean City property owners, business owners and pilots. The Aviation Task Force voted 22-1 for Alternative C to be the preferred development concept and submitted the preferred alternative to the Mayor and Council.

The preferred alternative extends the east-to-west runway to 5,000 feet, expands the north-to-south runway to 4,160 feet and calls for a relocation of Route 611.

The environmental assessment, which studies the impact that lengthening the runways will have on the environment, was completed in 2006 and submitted to the FAA. The draft was recently returned to the town, spurring the public hearing. The assessment shows 40 to 45 acres of wetlands to be displaced with an additional 175 acres of land displaced.

The environmental assessment was largely paid for by the FAA, with the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) and the town each contributing 10 percent of the $450,000 cost. The assessment is currently available at City Hall, the Ocean City branch of the Worcester County Library on 14th Street, the airport and at the Northside Park recreation office.

Supporters of the plan hope to gain an updated aviation facility to provide an improved level of service in aviation and to meet the forecasted demands for airport traffic.

Area resident James Dori spoke in support of the expansion at the public hearing.

“I totally support this airport expansion,” he said. “I think it’s necessary and realistic.”

Dori went on to stress the importance of the airport and the loss that the area would feel if it was to shut down.

“We’re going to need a bigger runway,” Dori said as he explained the potential growth of the airport.

Opposition to expansion and to the environmental assessment was heard for the remainder of the public hearing. People voiced concerns over environmental impact, displaced land and families, economic impact and property value.

Bud Church, a county commissioner and West Ocean City resident, came forward to speak as a resident, emphasizing that he was not speaking on behalf of the county’s elected officials.

Church referred to the countless e-mails and phone calls that he had received on the subject saying, “98 percent are very much opposed to this expansion.”

Church addressed concerns over three issues – economic impact, displaced families and the environmental impact study.

“It would be a huge injustice to displace those families,” Church said. “We have a wonderful airport in West Ocean City and I would not want to see that disappear, but I am not in favor of extending the runways.”

The environmental assessment was a hot topic, with discussion over the accuracy of the document as well as the impact that expansion will have on the habitat and coastal bays watershed around it.

Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coast Keeper, said that the assessment was severely lacking.

“If you continue to degrade our coastal bays, we will lose all the things that brought us to Worcester County in the first place,” Phillips said.

Dave Wilson, public outreach coordinator of the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, said the program is opposed to the expansion due to a number of concerns officials have with the environmental assessment.

Wilson pointed out that the assessment itself contains several errors. Wilson also emphasized the importance of maintaining the woods along Route 611.

Wilson addressed the relocation of Route 611, a two-lane highway running north and south from Assateague Island to Route 50, pointing out that moving the road and adding a curve to it would be detrimental. He said that Route 611 is both a hurricane evacuation route and a gateway to Assateague Island. Wilson also mentioned that Route 611 had been straightened out decades ago to improve safety.

Ocean City businessman Bill Purnell agreed. He feels that curving Route 611 would increase the chance of accidents along the road.

“It’s a perfectly straight, safe road,” Purnell said.

Residents also mentioned the effects that expansion would have on their property value as well as the increase in noise that they feel would result from increased air traffic.

After everyone had a chance to voice his or her opinion, there was only one speaker clearly in support of the project.

Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins said that the turnout and comments were as he expected, but he did say he was surprised that only 20 people chose to speak.

Adkins said that although only one person spoke in favor of expansion, there are supporters of the airport expansion.

Adkins explained that citizens would have until July 13 to submit comments. All comments will be sent to URS, the engineering firm, which will review and address any germane issues and add them as appendices to the environmental assessment.

Adkins explained that the next step in the process would be a review of the additional appendix by Terry Page, manager of the Washington Area District Office. Upon review, Page will issue an environmental finding that will either call for further study or will find no significant environmental impact.