Longtime neighbors of the Montgomery County Airpark who are concerned about noise and low-flying aircraft debated pilots, flight instructors and other residents who believed the airpark was a valuable training resource and economic engine for the county.
In reality, the forum on Tuesday night, hosted by Airpark and county officials, was not a debate, but a chance for attendees to voice either their support for or concerns about the airpark’s operations. Opponents said that overall training and so-called “touch-and-go” flights had caused an increase in noise in the immediate vicinity of the airpark, along with flights flying as low as 1,000 feet to 500 feet above the ground, near their homes.
“Touch-and-go” flights involve pilots who land on the runway and then take off again without coming to a full stop. It is used as a training exercise.
But pilots — whether in training or instructing students — and some other residents who lived close by said that training is needed at the airpark, to address a looming pilot shortage nationwide. They also said the airpark is a valuable economic center for the region, while also providing a source of tax revenue for local and state authorities.
Rosemary Arkoian, who lives just under five miles from the airpark, said she was one of two original members of the County Council’s Airpark Liaison Committee, established in 1990. She urged officials to consider reinstating that commission, in order to better shepherd complaints up to elected officials and those who work at the airpark.
“I believe the problem now is there are too many touch-and-go flights from the various flight schools … The hours of operation should be limited,” Arkoian said. “I’m not in favor of closing the airport, but I do want it to operate safely and to handle residents’ complaints quickly and honestly.”
Julie Kornack, another resident close to the Airpark, also said she does not oppose it. She likened the increase in noise to motorcycles driving circles around people’s houses every day. She asked that flight schools attempt to change their flight paths to move them away from residential areas.
“I’m not suggesting that accommodating that request is simple,” Kornack said. “I am no expert on what it takes to move a racetrack pattern away from populated areas. If we can agree on that goal, though, then we can work together to make it happen.”
But some argued that residents’ concerns about noise and lead pollution were overstated. Rebecca Cutri-Kohart, an Alexandria resident, said she had to sign a disclosure form when she bought her house there, as she deals with noise from flights departing and arriving at Reagan National Airport.
Cutri-Kohart said she owns a plane at the airpark, and that her husband — at risk of being laid off during the pandemic — started an airplane repair shop and has hired three community members this year. She also said that learning to fly has made a positive impact in her life.
“I learned to fly as a teenager with a scholarship from the local airport that was right near my house, which was in a major community like Gaithersburg,” Cutri-Kohart said. “And then I went on to study aerospace engineering in college and work at NASA. I tell you this because of the impact that airports can have on local community members’ lives in a positive way.”
Piotr Kulczakowicz, a flight instructor at the airpark, said the noise complaints were being exaggerated. He believed a few loud voices were drowning out the positive impact the airpark had on many.
He also cited a 2018 report by the state, which showed the airpark generated more than $5.75 million in business revenue annually and is responsible for 193 jobs.
“How do we increase the economic impact of the Montgomery County Airport? … That should be the focus of a broader discussion,” Kulczakowicz said. “How [do] we improve the airport? How [do] we make it the best airport serving the National Capital Region? I challenge the stakeholders to solve that problem.”
Some former and current elected officials participated in Tuesday’s meeting, including former County Council Member Steve Silverman and State Sen. Ben Kramer. Both said there was a need to “balance” concerns by perhaps limiting flight training hours and touch-and-go flights while also recognizing that the airpark was an important economic engine for the county and the state.
Tuesday’s forum was the second of the year for residents to attend about the airpark, and a more open format than the one in June, where FAA officials and other regulatory agencies fielded questions about the airpark. Residents, however, did not have the opportunity to directly testify as they did Tuesday — and toward the end of the forum, some residents had the chance to directly interact with county and airpark officials about concerns and how to make improvements.
In June, Kathy Mitchell, a senior legislative aide to Council Member Hans Riemer, told attendees then that Riemer had asked the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight to look into the issues. On Tuesday, Keith Miller, CEO of the county’s revenue authority — which operates the airpark — said that a report was still being finalized.
Also in June, Miller said that there were 27 noise complaints submitted to the airpark. That grew to 191 complaints from 11 households in 2020 and 2,835 complaints from 35 households in 2021, he said.
On Tuesday, Miller said that from Jan. 1, 2021 through early Dec. 7, there were 6,440 complaints. Of those, 86% came from “four unique households.” In total, 42 households had submitted complaints in that period, Miller said.
Dale Tibbitts, a special assistant to County Executive Marc Elrich, said near the end of Tuesday’s forum that Elrich’s office was in the process of hiring a consultant with experience evaluating issues at both small and large airports, in order to review ongoing complaints at the county’s airpark.
When Cutri-Kohart asked how much that consultant would cost and why the money wasn’t used for airport improvements like supplying fresh water, Tibbitts said the cost of the consultant was still unknown. He added the money for the consultant is coming from the county executive’s budget, and not the revenue authority, which makes decisions on spending at the airport.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org