Kurt Schneckenburger, who flies his plane out of the College Park Airport about once a week, says the construction of tall buildings near the end of the runway would create safety issues. “If you keep adding buildings out there, you’ll build a wall.”
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post
Construction of tall buildings is encroaching on the airspace of historic College Park Airport, forcing pilots to adjust landing and takeoff strategies and raising concerns among some in this Maryland community that continued development could threaten the viability of a small airpark that was used by the Wright brothers and is home to many aviation firsts.
Pilots already navigate around a 16-story student apartment complex just less than a mile away on a straight shot from the runway. But plans to add more and taller buildings have those who regularly use the airport worried about maintaining its historic feel as well as safety.
“If you keep adding buildings out there, you’ll build a wall,” said Kurt Schneckenburger, who first flew from College Park in 1986, when Metrorail did not run near the edge of the runway and car dealerships and one-story shops made up most of the city’s commercial district.
The December tragedy in which a private jet crashed into a four-bedroom home near the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, killing six people, also has pushed the debate over density and building heights to the forefront.
“You see all this construction happening . . . and that’s fine. We just don’t want tall buildings at the end of the runway,” said Schneckenburger, 57, who flies his 1972 Piper PA-28 Cherokee about once a week. “This is a safety issue.”
That’s why a recent proposal for a 13-story luxury hotel less than a mile from the airport had Schneckenburger and others concerned.
The Southern Management hotel project became caught up in the debate late last year when it sought approval from the Prince George’s County planning board. The Federal Aviation Administration warned that the hotel would be a potential hazard to air navigation, prompting the developer to drop three floors from its design and raising the project’s $115 million cost by $5 million.
Although the revised project appears to comply with FAA regulations, it has ignited demands for better enforcement of building height limits around the 66-acre airport, nestled between Lake Artemesia and an industrial area adjacent to the College Park Metro station, off Paint Branch Parkway.
“This seems to be the tip of the iceberg with more and more obstructions being proposed without much consideration to the airport,” Kyle Lowe said in an e-mail to the FAA in October. Lowe is a division chief in the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which oversees the airport.
A University of Maryland dormitory, built last year, encroaches on about seven feet of airspace, and a bioengineering building now under construction encroaches on about four feet, according to the FAA.
The FAA sets height restrictions based on a structure’s proximity to an airport and flight paths. State and local governments also set height guidelines for buildings near airports.
But rulings by the FAA and state agencies — in this case, the Maryland Aviation Administration — serve only as advisories. Local zoning authorities determine whether to allow building permits. Projects built on U-Md. property are not required to go through the local zoning process.
And even in cases where projects exceed local restrictions, developers can get around the limits by requesting variances.
U-Md. officials say they do not take the FAA’s and MAA’s recommendations lightly. In the case of the Prince Frederick Hall dorm built last year, the university added special markings and lighting to mitigate the potential hazard. And it plans to do the same with the bioengineering building, which the university says is actually shorter and farther from the airport than the University View complex, officials said.
“My understanding is that the four feet is not going to pose any problems,” university spokesman Brian Ullman said. “Believe it or not, the issue might be addressed simply by adding some lighting.”
Effects of height limits
Some experts say that height limits hamper developers’ ability to get the most out of their investments. Critics say the restrictions end up costing communities millions in tax revenue — and, ultimately, billions in economic growth. The wait for an FAA review alone can be costly and can disrupt a project’s timeline.
John Cohan, director of marketing for Southern Management, said the company had not anticipated having to deal with airport restrictions when it began pursuing its hotel project as part of a deal with U-Md. When it was notified about the 35-foot airspace intrusion in November, it was already in the last step of local approvals. The company was ready to proceed with construction — in fact, it received a permit last month to begin site preparation work.
“Instead of pushing back and trying to fight for the original plan, we redesigned it,” Cohan said. That process has already set the project’s timeline back a few months, threatening the plans for a 2016 opening, he said. “It’s been a significant cost — in the millions. A significant part of that is in the lost time.”
The 16-story University View apartment complex, built in 2005, is an example of what can happen if height restrictions aren’t enforced, some say. The building, the tallest in College Park, was determined to be an obstruction by aviation standards, but because it was planned before the county passed airport zoning regulations in 2002, the project moved through the approval process without much scrutiny.
Today, the complex juts out from a buffer of woods, visible from the front of the airport’s runway. Some pilots say that when they pass over the complex on final approach, they come so close to the building that they can wave at people on the roof.
“If you speak with the pilots, they say, ‘We have to work around that building, and it is not ideal.’ And the more buildings that go up like that, even if they are not that tall, but if they penetrate the airspace, then it is a problem for them,” said Terry Schum, College Park’s planning director.
Encroachment on airspace at general aviation airports is not a new problem, nor is the rapid growth that has swallowed up the communities surrounding small, semirural airparks across the United States.
These airports are viewed not only as part of an extensive network, but also as important economic and societal contributors to their communities. In some cases, they support medical, emergency and law enforcement flights and provide access to remote communities.
But most were built long before the communities that surround them and now are struggling to balance the needs of both.
In Orlando, for example, officials studying why the city does not have a distinctive skyline are faced with the reality that its downtown is too close to Orlando Executive Airport. Several projects that would have helped define the skyline, including plans for a nearly 500-foot tower, have been scrapped over the years.
The problem in places such as College Park, some pilots and airport officials say, is that airports have been excluded from the planning process and development has taken off without much consideration given to their operations. In some cases, development pressures have played a role in the closure of small airfields around the United States.
“I understand the developers’ concerns that if they can’t get to a certain height, they can’t get a good return on their investment. At the same time, having taller buildings around the airport really does make it more difficult for pilots to get in and out of the airport,” said John Collins, manager of airport policy at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. The group, which has about 370,000 members, hears about airport encroachment issues a couple of times a week, he said.
In College Park, the airport’s historical significance may be the reason it’s been able to survive. Founded in 1909, the facility is home to many aviation firsts: It saw the first female airplane passenger, the first U.S. helicopter flights and it was the terminus for the first airmail routes. The Wright brothers trained the country’s first military pilots there.
“That’s not something to take lightly,” said Andrea Cochrane Tracey, director of the College Park Aviation Museum, which is on airport property and displays aircraft and artifacts from the airfield’s history, which covers more than a century.
The county-owned airpark is building a $4.5 million, 13,000-square-foot terminal that will be connected to the museum.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, the airport lost business — activity fell from about 18,000 flight operations a year and nearly 100 aircraft based there to about 4,122 flight operations a year and 47 aircraft. But airport officials say the potential for growth is good given the proximity to the District and access to Metro, both of which make the airport attractive for business travelers, including members of Congress.
Ensuring the right development around the facility is key to making that happen, officials say. That’s why the height debate, Lowe said, is not about a particular project but ensuring that current and future development take those restrictions seriously.
“We are not trying to get in the way of economic development,” Lowe said. “We are trying to make sure that we are able to balance the needs of the development community with the airport operations. . . . We want to make sure that we have an airport that is viable and that is safe for the pilots and the public.”
The city says that’s also its goal. Long-term plans for the Route 1 corridor recognize the airport’s value and call for future development to respect the height restrictions around the airfield and to ensure it does not threaten its continued existence, officials said.
But finding a balance has turned out to be more challenging as the city focuses on drawing development to its downtown and the College Park Metro station, which is almost directly across from the airfield. The county, which sets zoning policy, has a new plan supporting buildings of up to 12 stories around the College Park Metro. The city has concerns, saying eight stories would be adequate given the Metro station’s proximity to the airport.
“There is plenty of development density that you can get without having 10-story buildings,” Schum said. “You build compactly, you build mid-rise buildings or townhouses, and that is appropriate around the Metro station. We don’t need towers to get the density.”
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