Local activists opposed to the Carroll County Regional Airport expansion joined county officials in a tour of wooded areas near the airport where approximately 330 trees are designated to be cut down.
The tour, requested by Westminster resident Rebekah Orenstein at a June meeting with county officials, brought about a dozen residents Thursday to the four parcels on which the trees stand.
County officials said cutting the trees is necessary to allow pilots to see the airport's new 4-box precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lighting system. Opponents, however, challenged whether the tree cutting is a necessity and questioned whether the plan is connected to the airport expansion.
"We're still focusing on getting the [tree harvesting] permit stopped," said Robert Brink, co-chairman of anti-expansion group Concerned Citizens United. Last month, Brink said he and Westminster resident Mary Kowalski e-mailed letters to the offices of the state attorney general, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources, requesting that the state agencies help prevent the timber harvesting.
"That's part of the total picture of trying to prevent the expansion of the airport," Brink said. "There are lots of environmental consequences to expanding. We got to see part of that [in the tour]."
Tom Robertson, Carroll County's forester, said that 80 percent to 90 percent of the 330 trees would obstruct pilots' views of the indicator lights.
The PAPI lights provide a guide for pilots at night, signaling whether an approaching plane is too high, too low or on the correct course for a safe landing. The county has planned to install the lights along the airport's single runway since its last 20-year master plan in 1986.
County officials initially planned to issue a permit to harvest the trees late last month, but opponents encouraged officials to wait.
"We're just holding off to have an opportunity to talk with the folks who have concerns with the trees, to explain why they're marked [for cutting] and why they're in an obstruction zone," said Cindy Parr, the county's chief of administrative services. "We're not in a hurry. We want to make sure that everyone's concerns are addressed."
Nearly 150 of the trees are diseased with Hypoxylon, an oak blight that Robertson said has been compounded by recent years of drought. About 40 of those trees would not obstruct the new PAPI lights, but were nevertheless marked for cutting, he said.
County officials have said that the trees are part of a forest conservation easement.
Parr said late last month that the harvested trees would be cut to a height of 3 to 4 feet, but Robertson said the harvest will leave stumps of about six inches to one foot in height, allowing the trees to regenerate.
"I feel they're being selective," said Nancy Frick, a master gardener who said she lives about a half-mile from the runway. "I don't want to see any of it cut, but if they cut it, they have to do it responsibly. It seems as if that's what they're trying to do."
The trees marked for cutting were designated as obstructing the PAPI lighting system to be installed along the runway.
Also, some residents wondered whether the harvesting was necessary because the $56 million airport expansion -- approved by the county commissioners last month -- calls for a new, longer runway 250 feet west and 600 feet north of the present one.
The airport expansion project could cost as much as $90 million, which will come from four funding sources, with the Federal Aviation Administration expected to supply most of the money, according to Gary Horst, acting airport supervisor with the county's Office of Performance Auditing.
The expansion is pending an FAA-required environmental assessment of the airport plan, which county officials said could take up to two years to complete.
In the meantime, cutting trees for PAPI lights at the runway's present location is needed, said Tim Feeser, special assistant to Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.
"This tree harvest, the whole purpose is for the safety of pilots and the folks who live here," Feeser said.