From the window of a single-engine Beechcraft Debonair, tire tracts are clearly visable 200 feet below on the dirt road cutting through the Gaithersburg residential construction site.
At that altitude, it is also possible to count the hard hats amid the wooden skeletons that will become the newest homes in the Hunters Woods development.
The wearers of the hard hats, though, may be the only people around the Montgomery County Airpark who will emerge unscathed from a debate over the facility.
A few months from now, the workers will complete construction of the neighborhood, about a half mile from the runway, which the airpark operator and residents of other nearby developments agree is in a hazardous position.
The problem, as seen by each side, is clear: Encroaching housing developments are making it increasingly difficult for planes to avoid flying over them at dangerously low altitudes.
The solution, however, is far from clear, and the two sides are far from agreement.
In 1959, the County Council approved a zoning exception for 115 acres owned by Montgomery County Airpark Inc. for construction of the air facility. The remaining 270 acres in the tract were zoned for industrial development.
Back then, the objections of a few citizens had nothing to do with airplanes. Indeed, Mayor George H. Pughe of Washington Grove, a nearby community, said at a hearing before the County Council: "The main thing we are interested in is to avoid being surrounded by industry."
Although industry near the airport has expanded, the massive escalation in development during the past decade has been residential, including Montgomery Village, Hunters Woods and several others now in the planning stages. The new homes have placed thousands of people less than a mile from the airpark and has radically changed the nature of citizen concerns.
The airpark, built in what used to be a completely rural section of Gaithersburg, is now in a densely residential one.
It is operated by the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, a state-created agency that also owns three golf courses and a retirement housing complex in the county.
Lee Swartz, executive director of the Revenue Authority, said local developers act as if a "tag" hangs from the airport that reads "housing opportunity area."
He emphasized, however, that people make their own decisions about whether to buy a home near the airpark. He noted county law requires that prospective buyers be told the home they are considering is within five miles of the airpark.
Alan Shulman, a resident of the Hunters Woods development, which sits about 3,000 feet north of the northwestern end of the runway, said he is awakened by planes at 3 a.m. at least once a week. But the noise is not his greatest concern at the moment, in light of two recent incidents.
On June 27, a single-engine plane lost power after reportedly coming within 30 feet of a home in Shulman's neighborhood. After the plane maneuvered around a clump of trees and missed the television antenna on a house across the street by three feet, according to Shulman, the engine restarted and the plane regained altitude, averting a serious accident.
Hunters Woods developer Jack Alfandre was not convinced of the potential hazard of the the incident. "It's hard to stand out there and say it was 30 feet," he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration could provide no information on the incident.
Three days earlier, a twin-engine Piper Apache lost power in one engine as it prepared to land at the airport, forcing the pilot to crash land in a cornfield that is part of an area where Kettler Brothers developers plan to build an extension of Montgomery Village. Kettler Brothers already has built housing for about 25,000 residents near the airpark.
The pilot and passenger, both airpark employes, were unhurt in the accident.
Both the FAA and airpark operator William Gibson called the June 24 incident "a precautionary landing" in a cornfield done to avoid colliding into any of the homes nearby.
But if things go as planned, Kettler Brothers next year will begin to turn the cornfield into town houses. Construction of the development, to be known as Montgomery Village East, is pending a planning board decision on the developers' request to increase the density of the area by about 800 units to a total of more than 2,000, a county planning spokesman said.
The planning board recently approved use of a site east of the runway for a mobile home park containing 347 units on 89 acres. The land is on Rte. 124, about three quarters of a mile from the Airpark Road entrance to the facility.
Shulman said that when he bought his home he trusted the county's residential zoning of the area to mean that he would feel safe moving his family to Hunters Woods. He now feels betrayed.
"It's sort of frightening," Shulman said, noting that particularly on weekends the number of planes in the sky is more than he can count on both hands. "I'd like to see the airport closed," he added.
Construction began in Hunters Woods in 1979, and more than half of the planned 430 units are already occupied.
Airpark operator Gibson, whose company, Gibson Aviation, is based at the airpark, said "the developers and planners are equally to blame" for the situation, which he called equivalent to "building houses on the median strip on a highway."
"We have been here for 20 plus years," he said, adding that airpark operators had altered flight traffic patterns as the developments sprang up in an effort to avoid flying directly over any homes. But now, he said, "the developers have made it impossible to fly without flying over houses."
He acknowledged that the margin of safety is lower than he would like. "If we get a pilot with a little less experience, there might be a bit of a problem," Gibson said during a flight over several development projects several hundred feet below.
The FAA requires planes to fly at a minimum of 1,000 feet, except during takeoffs and landings.
Hunters Woods developer Alfandre is matter-of-fact about the risks to residents. "Anybody underneath a plane is subject to being fallen on," he said. But he said he believes most planes are "up pretty high" when they fly over Hunters Woods. "I would rather live there than along the Beltway or on (I-)270."
Asked why the company chose the tract near the airpark for residential development, Alfandre laughed and said its location and home prices were key factors. The starting price at Hunters Woods is $54,500 for a town house and $77,950 for a single-family home.
Kettler Brothers Vice President Bill Hussmann said he understands the fears of residents, "especially if planes aren't behaving as they're supposed to." He noted the greatest problems with the airpark arise from "the fact that pilots are not staying within flight patterns and because of the type of aircraft in operation ."
Indeed, whether small jet planes should use the airpark is a question that has been debated for nearly a decade among airpark operators, county officials and residents. The answer is no clearer today.
In 1973, the Montgomery County Council, which must approve zoning, land use and capital improvement projects at the airpark, directed the Revenue Authority "not to permit jet aircraft to land on a regular basis," according to a letter from Council Chairman Neal Potter to the State Department of Economic and Community Development.
Federal regulations allow emergency landings of small jets, but these are discouraged because of the noise.
Gibson, who believes he has done nothing wrong by allowing jets to use the airpark, questioned the meaning of "regular basis" as a guideline for jets. Claiming that his job is akin to running a "parking lot," he accepted no responsibility for noise complaints by residents. A total of 280 planes are based at the airpark, including two jets.
Gibson, however, advertises in the telephone yellow pages that he operates "jet-powered, multi-engine aircraft, including jet helicopter service" out of the airpark. He noted that about "five or six" small jet aircraft land at the airpark every month, adding: "I believe our air flow is perfectly natural and normal for the needs we have for today."
Ionna Morfessis, director of the county Office of Economic Development, said the agency has worked hard in past years to change business' perception that the county government is antibusiness. "It would be a symbolic impediment if jets were prohibited," she said.
Council member Michael Gudis said residents' complaints about jet noise are increasing. On June 2, he wrote County Executive Charles Gilchrist to request a meeting with authorities of the airpark, Revenue Authority and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to discuss the problem.
Such a meeting would not be soon enough for Hunters Woods resident Alice Thompson, who says low-flying planes frequently cause her house to vibrate. "Television reception is impossible. But that's not what's most important. The most important thing is our life," she said.
A resident since September, Thompson said she regrets moving to Hunters Woods.
As part of its revision of the 1971 master plan for the Gaithersburg vicinity, the county planning commission recommended in June that the airpark continue to operate in the present manner, pending the findings of a noise study this year by the state aviation administration.
The agency can limit operating hours of the facility, now open 24 hours a day, or restrict certain planes, such as jets, from landing, said Perry Berman of the planning commission.
The commission completed its own noise study this year, taking into account projected increases in the operation by the year 2000. Noise contours were outlined, showing the 65-decibel limit set by the state for residential zoned areas extends 2,150 feet past the runway. The closest house in Hunters Woods is about 3,000 feet past the runway, planners said.
Although 65 decibels may be the legal cutoff, the figure doesn't include overflights and the fact that people may be bothered by noise recorded below the official limit.
Another source of controversy during the past 10 years has been the airport's 4,200-foot runway. Until 1971, the runway was 3,150 feet. The legality of its extension still is questioned by some, including longtime community activist Howard Layer of the nearby Mill Creeke Towne development. He worries that the airpark wants to expand the runway another 800 feet, which he believes would lead to more air traffic.
Layer recalled how he found himself behind an asphalt-filled truck in 1971. He said he was curious about where it was heading and decided to follow it--all the way to the airpark.
"I blew the whistle on the runway extension," he said, noting that the project was carried out without the knowledge of the County Council, which had refused to permit the runway extension for the two previous years. The county filed a lawsuit against the airpark.
The airpark operator at the time, James E. Richardson, said the Revenue Authority gave him permission for the extension in 1967. The county's zoning board of appeals extended a variance for the expansion in 1970.
A judge dismissed the county's suit against the airpark operator in 1971.
Gibson said adding 800 feet more to the runway would allow "a safer operation," but he hesitated to call it an "extension." "If we did have a larger volume of traffic, it would be healthy for the county," he said.
The Revenue Authority, however, did not include a request for a longer runway in this year's capital improvements proposal to the County Council.
Jim Early of the Redland Knolls community said the current rate of neighborhood development makes it virtually impossible to justify expanding the airpark.
Having attended public hearings on airpark issues for more than 10 years, Early indicated he has "no intention of acquiescing in changes at the airpark that will make my life less bearable."
County studies indicated there were 191,000 takeoffs and landings at the airpark in 1980, based on assumed flight patterns and a representative mix of aircraft. An equivalent study last year by Kettler Brothers' reported about 130,000 flights. By contrast, Dulles airport is the takeoff or landing site for 170,000 planes annually, although these are primarily large, commercial passenger jets.
Gibson declined to provide an estimate of the number of flights at the airpark. "Nobody keeps track. Would you count the cars going in and out of a parking lot?" he said.
Gibson said, however, that while overall business at the airpark has decreased in recent years, use of the facilties by area firms continues to be a significant segment of his clientele. He said about 70 of the planes based at the airpark are used for corporate business.
The county Office of Economic Development insists the airpark has an important role in the county's overall economic development.
Layer and Early are not convinced of that. They said that when GTE, a Fortune 500 telephone and electronics company, recently announced plans to relocate to Montgomery County, the airpark was not cited in its list of reasons for choosing the county.
They also recalled that the County Council's 1970 resolution stated "an expanded airport would not appear to be essential to the continued economic growth of the county."
Morfessis, of the Office of Economic Development, disagreed with the county's assesment, saying the needs of the businesss community regarding the airpark should not be underestimated.
"There is a great fear among business people that the airpark might be driven out of existence because of pressure of the people who buy homes (nearby)," she said.