Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Legislators come to aid of embattled Essex Skypark: County wants to plant trees on current location

Baltimore County told the Essex Skypark last month it had five years to find a new location and vacate its current spot off of Back River Neck Road.

Supporters of the Skypark, including the members of the 6th District state legislative delegation and other eastside legislators, insist the airport is fine right where it is.

The county’s reasoning is noble enough: it wants to plant trees on the site to help protect the watershed and replace forests uprooted by development elsewhere in Baltimore County.

But the Essex Skypark Association and its supporters point out it’s easier to find places to plant trees than find a new location for an airport.

“It’s quite a little gem,” said Del. John Olszewski Jr. (6th District), chairman of the Baltimore County House delegation. “There’s not a lot of airfields like this.

“It’s also a park for people who don’t necessarily fly, a place for families to go and watch pilots do their thing.”
Olszewski and several other legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, met with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz earlier this month to discuss allowing the skypark to remain in its current location.

“It’s an important part of local aviation history and a valuable commercial and recreational asset,” Olszewski said. “It provides an opportunity not really available elsewhere. If we lost it, we would not really see it again.

“Closing it for planting; I don’t really see the reasoning there.”

Nearly 70 years old, the Essex Skypark is the last light aviation airfield open to the public in Maryland, and one of the few airfields on the East Coast with a seaplane landing strip.

Several small aviation-related businesses involved in flight instruction, aerial photography, antique aircraft restoration, flight simulation instruction and banner towing operate out of the Skypark.

Sen. Norman Stone (6th District) and 6th District delegates Olszewski, Michael Weir Jr. and Joseph “Sonny” Minnick are among the co-sponsors of a bill that would designate the skypark as a historic property.

“I would hope that would save the skypark,” said Weir, one of the lead sponsors of the bill (H.B. 1108).

Other legislators are looking into getting grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration that would allow the Essex skypark Association to buy the property from Baltimore County.

The county purchased the skypark property in 2000 as part of a 500-acre purchase from the Shapiro family.

The skypark started in 1942 when a man named William Diffendahl built an airport and called it Diffendahl Field (which is why the road leading to the skypark off Back River Neck Road is called Diffendahl Road).

The first airport had two intersecting turf runways of 2,200 and 1,800 feet.

During the 1940s, more then 100 pilots flew out of the airfield.

In 1949, J.S. Shapiro bought the land and renamed it Eastern Airport. It was renamed Essex Skypark in 1967.

The current airport has a new 2,084-foot by 28-foot asphalt runway built since 2005. About 46 aircraft are currently based at the skypark.

A Baltimore County spokeswoman did not say the county’s plans for the skypark property have definitely changed.

“[County Executive] Kamenetz assured [the legislators] he would have [chief of staff] Don Mohler meet with the Skypark Association and [6th District] County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins,” Ellen Kobler said.

“They will discuss possible solutions, and Kamenetz is optimistic the meeting will resolve this issue,” Kobler said.

Baltimore County purchased the land containing the skypark through the Maryland Environmental Trust, Kobler said, for purposes of open space, reforestation, and protecting vulnerable areas leading to the Chesapeake Bay.

Weir, who has been heavily involved in environmental issues, said, “Everyone who’s looked at the Environmental Trust feels there’s no way they should be able to close the skypark down.
“The airport would have to be abandoned for one year for Baltimore County to take it over,” Weir said. “That’s why they’re trying to give the Skypark Association five years to abandon it and find another site.”

Weir said he doesn’t see the skypark closing, but they’ll continue working on the bill to grant it historic status.

Del. Pat McDonough (7th District) has also introduced a bill to prevent the skypark from being booted from its current location.

The bill, also sponsored by Del. Rick Impallaria (7th District), would prohibit Baltimore County from assuming ownership of the skypark and only allow an airport at the current location.

“We want the skypark to continue,” McDonough said. “There was no debate, no disagreement on this, just a solid wall of support from all legislators.

“Kamenetz clearly said [at the meeting with legislators] he was taking the idea of planting trees [on the skypark property] off the table, and he would meet with the Skypark Association to discuss a new lease and a productive future for the county and the skypark at that location.”

Some ideas include expanding the “park” aspect, with benches and tables for families to hold picnics.

And, yes, more trees.

“There still has to be some tree planting,” Olszewski said. “It just doesn’t have to happen at the expense of the runway and the hangars.”


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