Maryland Airport: Economic Engine or Field of Dreams?

Chapter 12 The Board of County Commissioners in 2001 may have been watching one of those baseball games played by ghosts in a converted corn field when they proclaimed the airport as “critical to our long term economic development.” There are no economic studies to support such a dream. Nevertheless, projects like the Cross County Connector and the Tech Park were planned to support the vision and became ghosts like the ballplayers hiding out in a misty corn field.

Ghost Ball Players

The Maryland Airport as we know it today couldn’t exist without the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as its benefactor. The FAA:

• Provided $20 million for upgrades to accommodate diverted aircraft with no reasonable interest in or expectation of collateral economic development.
• Gave the airport owner autonomy to administer Federal environmental laws.
• Ignored the piecemeal process, called segmentation, which precluded full accountability for socio-economic and environmental impacts.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an overview Environmental Assessment (EA) is required for the planned runway expansion. The airport’s owner has been given discretionary powers to arbitrate all comments. It comes as no surprise that filling 800’ of stream valley with 500,000 cubic yards of dirt was judged by the owner to be insignificant.

Likewise, the secondary impacts – roads, sewer lines, water lines – have never been considered. We know that the Tech Park still occupies a position of prominence in the draft comprehensive plan and a sewer line is being designed to serve both the Tech Park and the Airport.

We also know that the original EA “overlooked” some trees below the flight path that need to be cut and pruned. Since this impact is on property the airport doesn’t own, it qualifies as another issue that was ignored and now requires a supplemental EA. How do airport runway designers miss trees?

Segmentation is the term for submitting multiple small EAs instead of one major one. This practice runs counter to the intent and probably the letter of NEPA, but it doesn’t seem important to the owner who is administering NEPA for the FAA. As long as the impacts are not significant, a detailed Environment Impact Statement can be avoided. Of course, death by a thousand “insignificant” cuts is still death.

The Airport Land Use study says the airport as an economic engine is mostly a myth. I think we all knew that already. It was always just an airport and it will still be just an airport after the upgrades. However, that won’t stop the further destruction of our environment in the name of mythical economic development or stop the dreamers from getting public money to clear their cornfield.

Read more from our ongoing series, “Charles County’s Comprehensive Plan fiasco.”