Sunday, June 11, 2017

Residential development squeezes out model airplane club




The West Alabama Aero Modelers club is fishing for a place to fly after learning last month that residential development will force them to vacate the facility they rent at Munny Sokol Park.

The Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority built the facility, but the club has been flying in that area since they were founded more than 40 years ago, the club’s then-spokesman Harry McWilliams told The Tuscaloosa News in 2012.

“When the club was started in March of 1975, a couple of the guys talked to PARA about the possibility of leasing them a place to fly,” McWilliams said in 2012. “So from the beginning, PARA has provided the club a place to fly at Sokol Park, even before it was Sokol Park. So you might say they have been a partner to us since the beginning.”

Decades of growth and development on all sides of the WAAM facility have slowly but surely shrunk the airspace in which they can operate, though, and PARA’s director of park operations and development Jay Strickland said the problem has finally come to a head.

“The facility has been in a very good place for them for the 10 years it’s been there but development has squeezed them,” Strickland said. “We’ve tried to help them in every way we can, but they just don’t have enough space to fly anymore.”

For years, pilots flew their model airplanes over an undeveloped field to the east of the WAAM facility’s 650-foot grass runway. Strickland said that land was owned by the Alabama Department of Mental Health, and they never complained about the remote controlled aircraft flying over the field.

A few years ago, the state sold that land to a private developer, who Strickland said has reached out to PARA and asked them to prevent club members from flying over the empty field. Strickland said they had no choice but to comply since the empty field belongs to the private developer. Efforts to reach the private developer on Friday were unsuccessful.

With parking lots and athletic fields keeping the hobbyists from flying in any other direction, the club will no longer be able to operate out of Sokol Park and is stuck looking for a new home.

Keith Woodbury, an engineering professor University of Alabama and WAAM member, said many club members guessed the eventual fate of the facility when work began on the 282-acre subdivision known as Highgrove just east of the field they fly over, but no one thought their lease would be terminated so soon.

“We knew that our time was limited there, but we didn’t know how imminent everything was,” Woodbury said. “I think we would have been more active much earlier in looking for alternatives if we had been given more advanced notice.”

Frank Baity, the club’s president, said now WAAM must find a new home or else see the club disappear.

“If we end up with no place to fly and no place to have our meetings, eventually the club will fall apart,” Baity said. “It’s really a shame to lose this facility.”

Strickland said he is actively working with Baity and others to find another site suitable for the club and that no one at PARA wants to see them forced out of Sokol.

“We obviously hate that it’s come to this, because I think the club is an excellent thing,” Strickland said. “If I didn’t think it was a good thing for the community, I wouldn’t be taking in active role in trying to find another place for them to be.”

That’s a tougher proposition that it may seem. Strickland said the club needs a site of at least 10 acres, one that’s more than five miles away from the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport and also meets specific guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which offers liability insurance to all WAAM members for their model flying activities.

Baity said he hopes the club and PARA can come to a new arrangement together, but also asked any private landowner who might be interested in leasing space to the club to contact him.

The group gathered for their final “Fly In” Saturday morning, giving the park a proper sendoff before their lease officially expires on June 23.

“You put this thing together and now it’s going to fly,” Woodbury said. “You’re controlling this aircraft, commanding its motion, and you’re able to do that successfully. It’s challenging and it requires a lot of concentration, but for me it’s all very pleasurable.”

Story and video:  http://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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