Monday, January 23, 2012

Some Upset Over Plan for Essex Skypark (W48), Baltimore, Maryland

County officials have said they want to take control the property at the 70-year-old Essex institution in order to plant trees and address other environmental issues.

Tom Katzenberg's 1996 Maule is one of more than 40 aircraft housed at the Essex Skypark.
Credit Courtesy of Tom Katzenberger

Tom Katzenberger said flying does not have to be something only for the wealthy.

To understand that, he said, one only needs to check out those who house aircraft at Essex Skypark. There, about 46 aircraft are housed and many of them were built  by the pilots.

“The people who use Essex Skypark have wrinkled faces and weathered skin,” said Katzenberger, who is president of Community Concrete Restoration and owns a 1996 Maule. “It’s a blue-collar airport in the truest sense.”

But, Katzenberger and others with the Essex Skypark Association, which operates the airport, fear that the 70-year-old Essex institution will soon be a thing of the past if Baltimore County gets its way.

Vince Gardina, director of the county’s department of environmental protection and sustainability, said the county wants to clear the 40 acres of the skypark in order to plant trees, improve water quality along Back River, replace forests destroyed by other development in the county and help to mitigate other pollution issues along the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Baltimore County has owned the property since 2000 when it purchased 500 acres from the Shapiro family through the Maryland Environmental Trust, Gradina said. The Essex Skypark Association had signed a series of five-year leases with the county since then.

But when the association failed to renew its lease last year on time, Gardina said, that gave the county the opportunity to move forward with its plans for the skypark land. The county’s current plan is to allow the skypark association five years to find a place to relocate before taking over the property.

“This is a case of a private organization using public property,” Gardina said. “The reason the county purchased the land in the first place was to preserve natural resources and help protect the environment.”

Katzenberger said that closing the skypark would be a blow to the community’s deep aviation heritage, which dates back to World War II when Glenn L. Martin set up shop in Middle River. The skypark was originally built by William Diffendahl and housed up to 200 planes in its early years.

“What a shame,” Katzenberger said. “They need 40 acres so some developer can get their project through."

Katzenberger was referring to the skypark being converted to green space to replace open land lost elsewhere in the county to development.

"There’s got to be more to wanting to close the skypark than planting some trees,” he added.

Katzenberger said that the skypark is a local educational facility where generations of eastern Baltimore County residents, including former astronaut Tom Jones, learned to fly. The grounds have also been utilized by local Boy Scout troops and area families just interested in seeing an airplane up close.

Katzenberger said it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a new location suitable for a skypark. To help garner additional support, the Essex Skypark Association has launched an online petition where people can sign and leave additional comments.

“In most cases, either a community doesn’t want an airport or an airport doesn’t want a new community built next to it,” Katzenberger said. “This is a case where the community and the airport want to exist together and the county doesn’t seem to agree.”

Gardina said it was never the county’s intention to keep the skypark open indefinitely, and the lease lapsing provided the county the opportunity to press forward with its plans.

“Five years is plenty of time to find a new location,” Gardina said. “The steps being taken by the county are in line with the Maryland Environmental Trust. This is about protecting the local environment.”

Brian Dolan has housed an aircraft at the skypark for 20 years and learned to fly there more than 40 years ago from his father. He said the loss of Essex Skypark would be devistating to the community, and would end events such as the annual Wings and Wheels fly-in in September.

"It's a family place and sewed into the fabric of the community," said Dolan, 66, of Towson. "It would be a huge loss to take something away that the community wants."


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