2021 | Government

Council will investigate complaints about county’s airpark

Residents nearby complained about noise, safety at meeting Wednesday

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Montgomery Council Member Craig Rice told more than 150 attendees in a virtual meeting on Wednesday that he and his colleagues would investigate their complaints about Montgomery County Airpark.

The Montgomery County Revenue Authority — which owns and operates the airpark in Gaithersburg — held a meeting Wednesday with several aviation officials to discuss operations of the airpark, plus noise and safety complaints from residents.

Near the end of the 90-minute meeting, Rice wrote in the meeting’s chat that council members would order a lead — which is used in most airplane fuel and burned into the air — and noise study into the airpark, and explore whether an air tower is needed. The airpark has a 4,200-foot runway.

Kathy Mitchell, a senior legislative aide to Council Member Hans Riemer, wrote in the chat that Riemer asked the Office of Legislative Oversight to look into the issues. He wanted the entity to “assess whether current safeguards are adequate to regulate the safety and noise issues of the greatly increased flight and training operations taking place at the Airpark.”

During the meeting, questions flew into the call chat section while Keith Miller, CEO of the county’s revenue authority, and others told residents how to report noise and safety complaints, along with a basic overview of how the FAA and other aviation experts review those complaints.

In 2019, there were 27 complaints submitted to the airpark, Miller said. That grew to 191 complaints from 11 households in 2020 and 2,835 complaints from 35 households in 2021, he said.

Genevieve Walker, an environmental specialist in the FAA’s Washington Airports District office, said the last time a Part 150 Air Noise Study was completed at the airpark was in 1993. That study can be funded through an FAA grant, but the airport needs to request it, she said.

According to the Transportation Research Board, a non-government research entity that looks at aviation and types of transportation, a Part 150 Air Noise study “includes Noise Exposure Maps that define the existing and future aircraft noise exposure boundaries surrounding the airport and a Noise Compatibility Plan to identify mitigation measures that could correct surrounding non-compatible land uses.”

During the meeting, several residents asked whether the use of “touch-and-go” flights and training can decrease or stop at the airport.

Those flights are often used by young pilots learning how to fly, to improve their takeoff and landing skills. Marie Kennington-Gardiner, the acting regional administrator for the FAA’s Eastern Region, said those flights are critical training for pilots learning their aircraft.

Because the airpark is public and receives state and federal tax dollars, it must provide that service for up-and-coming pilots, Gardiner said.

Miller said the touch-and-gos can be eliminated if there are safety or noise problems, and added late in the meeting that he would see if waivers could be granted to limit that activity.

Gardiner, however, said the practice is important, especially as pilots may one day perform crucial tasks like delivering Amazon packages or flying commercial flights, she said.

“That’s the future that’s in store for these students, and that’s why we need them to be as proficient as possible,” Gardiner said.

Throughout the meeting, many longtime residents wrote in the call chat that noise has gotten worse at the airport in recent decades.

“Lived here 30 years. Seeing bigger noisier planes flying directly over my house.. Cant hold conversation or phone call in the backyard. don’t need FAA study to tell me that,” James C. wrote.

“It is acceptable to hear planes flying at the appropriate level that is background noise,” wrote Sharonda Tack. “Planes that shake my house or fly low and are extremely loud is not acceptable.”

In 2014, a plane crashed into a Gaithersburg house after trying to land at the airpark, killing six people, including a mother and two boys who were in a house damaged by fire.

Miller and Dale Tibbetts, a special assistant to County Executive Marc Elrich, said there would be future meetings about potential complaints.

“Watching the chat, I am not blind,” Tibbetts said. “I know it did not satisfy everyone’s questions.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com