Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Airpark has been running a deficit for two years

Neighbors have been complaining, too, about noise, safety and air traffic; business owners worry about shabby maintenance

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
DH Aviation’s Dave Hopkins performs a yearly inspection on a Piper Navajo Chief in his shop at the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg. The airpark has been the target of concerns from neighbors, pilots and business owners over such issues as safety, lack of financial viability and the perception that air traffic is increasing. Actually, traffic has fallen since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which operates the county airpark, has a fight on its hands as it fends off community criticism of changes to the Gaithersburg airport and tries to justify the benefit of the airport, which has operated at a deficit for the past two years.

Key to its battles are recouping more than $800,000 in losses since 2005 and clarifying for neighbors that updates to the airport, which include acquiring surrounding businesses, are necessary to maintain federal safety standards, and not a backdoor expansion, airport officials said.

Third-party audits from 2006 list the airpark’s deficit at $405,000, including $187,000 of depreciation. In 2005, the airpark lost $418,000, including $204,000 of depreciation, said Keith Miller, the Revenue Authority’s executive director.

Those deficits are offset by revenues from the authority’s other operations, which include nine golf courses.

‘‘The deficit is what it’s costing us to maintain the airpark versus what we are getting in lease payments,” Miller said.

To pay for the airpark, the Revenue Authority leases space and charges fees to about 17 tenants that run businesses or offer services, including a flight school and corporate charter flights.

To stem the flow of red ink, Miller is hoping traffic at the airpark bounces back to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, figures when yearly traffic included 150,000 takeoffs and landings. This year, Miller said, the number dropped to 100,000 — slightly up from 95,000 in fiscal 2006, as listed in a statewide report.

The airpark’s neighbors, already angry about the noise of planes flying overhead, have long complained about the perceived increase in aircraft traffic. The criticism has been addressed lately through a series of letters, commentaries and responses between pilots and residents in The Gazette.

‘‘We’re not saying close it down, but keep it a small municipal airport,” said Terry O’Grady, president of the East Village Homes Corporation in Montgomery Village.

O’Grady admits that she knew what she was getting into when she bought her home near the airpark six years ago.

‘‘Most of the residents moved in under the assumption that this airport was small, but with the increased traffic at the airport, this is an accident waiting to happen. Our main concern is safety,” O’Grady said.

Miller said some residents are using ‘‘scare tactics” in describing false scenarios of what the airport will become.

‘‘I think there is a core group [of residents] that doesn’t like the airpark, and they tend to come out and express that opinion in different ways,” he said. ‘‘I think all these items [issues] have been around for several years. I just think these are residents who will always complain.”

What has been around — and will be around for at least two more years — are plans to increase the buffer zone around the airport’s 4,200-foot runway. In 2002, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the airpark, updated the airport’s Runway Protection Zone requirement and gave the Revenue Authority at least $30 million to acquire surrounding businesses — including Sanford Kramer Plumbing, Heating and Air and a state emissions testing center — and to update its landing strip lights, lower the road running alongside the runway and help displaced businesses relocate. About $1.4 million has been earmarked to buy a lot directly across from the landing strip.

Maryland Vehicle Administration officials said plans are in the beginning stages for the emissions center to close in 2009. It is still uncertain whether the center will be moved or whether other test stations will be expanded.

‘‘Everyone keeps saying this is an expansion. There is no expansion,” said airport manager John Luke III. ‘‘Our runway will not be any longer. If we wanted to bring in larger planes, we would need to extend our runway, and we’re not doing that.”

Sometime later, Luke said, the airport may develop up to seven acres for more airplane hangars.

Whether actual or perceived, upset residents say the increased safety zone is a gateway to more air traffic.

‘‘It’s a trend that these general aviation airports open in far-out areas, and then things change and the airport is once again in the center of a booming population center,” said Brian Benhaim, a East Village resident who moved into his home in 1994 and whose commentary has been printed by The Gazette. ‘‘If you do the homework, you find that there is not a real economic benefit to the county. Another project like an office building or something else could provide even more economic benefit to the county.”

This type of back and forth among the Revenue Authority, airpark and upset residents could be avoided with better management, said Charles M. Abell, the 15-year manager of Frederick County’s municipal airport. He cited the Gaithersburg airport as a model for what should not happen with small airports.

After reading the letters and commentary in The Gazette, ‘‘I thought, ‘They don’t appreciate what they have,’” he said. ‘‘Any city or county with an airport has a capital asset that is second to none. When you have a mile of runway, you can go anyplace in the world and they can come to you.”

Abell’s suggestion for Montgomery officials: Take stock in what you have.

Doing that could be difficult, said pilot and surgeon Michael A. Klein, owner of the private aviation taxi service Open Air at the county airpark.

‘‘The Revenue Authority is awful. They are more interest in golf courses than maintaining the airpark,” Klein said. ‘‘Any time you deal with the county, things are very slow. Meanwhile, Frederick [airport] has been expanding like crazy and that money could be coming into Montgomery County.”

According to a state report tracking the economic impact of commuter airports in fiscal 2006, Montgomery County’s airpark generated 82 jobs and about $6.5 million in revenue. During the same time period, the Frederick airport generated more than 1,200 jobs and about $109 million in revenue.

‘‘I am disappointed with the aesthetics of the airpark compared to other places,” said Klein, who has operated his business out of Gaithersburg for two years. ‘‘It’s kind of an embarrassment compared to other private airports that have nice floors, people in uniforms, hosts who come to the door to greet clients ...”

Although Klein has been very satisfied with the airpark’s management and with Luke, his attempts to get the airpark terminal’s offices and common areas refurbished have been frustrating, he said.

Miller said improvements to those areas are scheduled after the buffer zone requirements are complete.

What is the Revenue Authority?

The Montgomery County Revenue Authority is a quasi-public body created in 1957 to operate a variety of self-supporting projects. It can issue its own bonds, which are repaid through revenues generated by its projects. In addition to the county airpark in Gaithersburg, the Revenue Authority manages nine golf courses. They are:

Falls Road Golf Course, Potomac

Hampshire Greens Golf Course,Silver Spring

Laytonsville Golf Course, Laytonsville

Little Bennett Golf Course, Clarksburg

Needwood Golf Course, Rockville

Northwest Golf Course, Silver Spring

Poolesville Golf Course, Poolesville

Rattlewood Golf Course, Mount Airy

Sligo Creek Golf Course, Silver Spring