Members fret over Balto. Co. plans to close Essex Skypark

Tom Katzenberger calls the Essex Skypark "a blue-collar airport" — a place where the pilots have dirt under their fingernails.

"All of us change our own oil," said Katzenberger, who owns a small concrete construction company and flies a 1996 Maule, a four-seat airplane. "All of us fix our own flats."

Katzenberger and other members of the Essex Skypark Association recently learned that the waterfront airport could be lost, and with it an aviation tradition that they say they couldn't afford to continue elsewhere. Members have no plans to leave — and they're gearing up for a fight.

Baltimore County officials have developed a plan to clear the site's 2,000-foot runway and its hand-built hangars, planting the area with oak and maple trees to improve water quality, protect native species and replace forests destroyed by development elsewhere in the county.

The local government has owned the property since 2000, when it spent $2.1 million to buy more than 500 acres on the Back River Neck Peninsula from the Shapiro family through the Maryland Environmental Trust. Since then, the airport has leased land from the county just as it did from the previous owners.

"[The airport] is a 40-acre doughnut hole in the middle of a 500-acre forest," said Vince Gardina, director of the county's environmental department.

County officials say they never agreed to let the skypark association stay permanently and that they expected the group to eventually leave after the county bought the site.

The group now has five years to move or close the skypark.

"The airport's woven into the fabric of the community," Katzenberger said. "I don't think the county is aware of how passionate we are."

He said nearby Martin State Airport, which provides an array of services to pilots — including a lounge with recliners and a big-screen TV, and rides to local hotels and restaurants — is geared toward people with more money.

Martin State is far larger, with a 7,000-foot runway and about 270 aircraft, including corporate jets and military aircraft, spokesman Jonathan Dean said. A T-hangar costs $195 a month to rent, compared with $95 at the Essex Skypark. Pilots can't perform major maintenance work on their planes at Martin State.

The atmosphere at Essex, which has 46 aircraft, is "much more laid back," said skypark association president Ron Lane. Pilots enjoy fixing their own planes. They gather for coffee in a cottage-like building where model airplanes dangle from the ceiling.

Association senior trustee Max Lichty learned to fly at the Essex airport in 1959. The 74-year-old retired Bethlehem Steel machinist is still at it today, piloting a 1946 refurbished Aeronca that took him more than two years to build.

"On a fixed income, this is one of the few airports that I can afford," Lichty said.

The airport, which opened in 1942, goes hand in hand with the area's aviation history, the skypark group contends. During World War II, the Glenn L. Martin Co.'s plant, where workers built the China Clipper and B-26 bombers among other aircraft, spurred rapid population growth in Middle River and Essex.

Aviation buffs have feared that the county would want the skypark property before, but this is the first time officials have spelled out a plan for the land, Katzenberger said.

Last year, the association failed to give 120 days' notice that it wanted to renew its five-year lease, in what members say was a clerical error. Then, in a letter sent to association members in November, a county attorney said the county would put them on a month-to-month lease and would not renew the association's five-year lease until the members turned over a relocation plan.

"The county purchased the property in order to permanently protect the exemplary forest, wetlands and buffers that are present," the letter states. "We now wish to enhance these natural resources, and significantly improve water quality in the adjoining Back River, by converting the area occupied by the skypark to a forested state."

The skypark group regularly talks with county officials about issues such as a project to stop erosion along the shoreline, and the county had not indicated its plans before sending the letter, association members said.

Long ago, the paved runway and grassy field were farmland. An aviation enthusiast named William Diffendahl bought property for the field in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lane said.