view counter

Proposed ­Runway ­Ruffling Feathers

Tipton Airport expansion plan is ­pitting aviation against wildlife

A planned runway extension at ­Tipton Airport in Laurel is encountering turbulence.
    In the 15 years since the former U.S. Army airfield at Fort George C. Meade reopened as a public-use general aviation airport, Tipton has steadily grown to the point where it is fully occupied.
    “We are a designated reliever airport to divert traffic away from the larger commercial airports,” said Michael Wassel, Tipton Airport’s manager. “We’re the only airport between D.C. and Baltimore that can redistribute traffic going in and out of BWI.”
    Now the Federal Aviation Administration wants to extend the airport’s 3,000-foot-long runway by 1,200 feet and widen it to 100 feet from its current 75 feet. This would allow a wider range of aircraft to use the airport, including twin-engine and mid-size business jets. The FAA will pay 90 percent of the nearly $27 million cost.
    However, conservationists fear the development will harm forest, wildlife and bird habitat. The longer runway will require clearing about 74 acres of the adjacent Patuxent Research Refuge, a 20-square-mile preserve managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
    Those 74 acres represent a tiny sliver of the Patuxent Research Refuge’s 12,841-acre total, Wassel said.
    A 557-page Environmental Assessment Report on the expansion plan concludes that it “is not anticipated to cause a cumulative impact that would create adverse environmental impact.”

“Six-10ths of one percent — not that I’ve done the math or anything,” says Tipton Airport manager Michael Wassel, referring to the impact on 74 acres of Patuxent Research Refuge’s 12,841-acre total.

    But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
    “The kind of impact they are talking about would be difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate,” said Brad Knudsen, manager of the Patuxent Research Refuge. “Some of those trees are 100 or more years old.”
    Sandy Spencer, a wildlife biologist at Patuxent Research Refuge, said the forested area to be cleared has several bird species that are area-sensitive, including the ovenbird, wood thrush, scarlet tanager and Kentucky warbler.
    The Audubon Society’s regional director of bird conservation, David Curson, said the refuge is already under pressure from other potential development.
    “Without stiff resistance, it is easy to see in the future a gradual but irreversible erosion of this habitat gem!” Curson wrote in response to the environmental assessment of the airport expansion.
    Tipton is the home base for Anne Arundel and Howard counties’ four police helicopters and local TV stations’ traffic and MedStar medical transport helicopters. Also based at Tipton are the engineering firm Cantada and 1 World Aero, a flight school and aircraft rental service. It also provides routine aircraft maintenance.
    The airport generates $20.8 million in annual revenue, and its 345 jobs produce $1.7 million in state and local taxes. It receives no funding from the state or Anne Arundel County.
    “We are self-sufficient. If we don’t make money, we don’t stay open,” Wassel said.
    The FAA and the Tipton Airport Authority contend the project’s environmental impact is an acceptable tradeoff with the benefits expected from expanding the airport’s ability to handle general aviation traffic.
    Opponents disagree.
    “Do we really need to expand a minor airport?” said Kurt Schwarz, conservation chair of the Maryland Ornithological Society. A Schwarz memo called the airport expansion an “outrageous threat to the largest green gem between Baltimore and D.C.”
    Knudsen says opponents of the airport expansion are contemplating legal action to block it.
    “The land in the refuge has an elevated status — it’s supposed to remain protected,” Knudsen said. “We don’t believe [airport expansion] is in the best interests of the refuge. We’d like to see it go away.”