Supervisors mull construction limits near county airport

MARTINSBURG – Officials in North Woodbury Township, home of the Altoona-Blair County Airport, are wrestling with a state rule requiring local governments to restrict construction in wide areas around airstrips.

The requirement, established years ago in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, but now making its way to Blair County municipalities, calls for every government along flight paths and around airports to pass clear rules restricting building height. While some have passed new ordinances in recent weeks and some must still weigh the pros and cons, others, like Taylor and Huston townships, have rejected the concept.

That might spare Taylor and Huston officials the effort and confusion of passing construction limits, North Woodbury Township Solicitor W. Lee Oswalt III said at a Tuesday hearing, but in turn the state could punish them by taking away key funds for road repairs.

“This is not something [the township supervisors] want to do. This comes from on high. … This is a political gun to the township’s head,” Oswalt said.

Under the proposed ordinances, townships and boroughs would set building restrictions based on a Blair County Planning Commission altitude map. In a wide cone around each of the county’s three public airports and a long, descending landing path toward its largest, local officials would have to enforce limits akin to zoning rules, despite the fact that many of the affected rural townships don’t employ zoning.

Some townships, including Blair and Allegheny, have passed the ordinances without incident. But some officials close to the Altoona-Blair County Airport expressed concerns that the maps aren’t clear enough and that the new rules would add zoning inspection to their responsibilities.

“We would be responsible for enforcement,” said Taylor Township Supervisor Bill Replogle, whose board voted against the plan. Without a police force, the township would have a hard time investigating and punishing property owners who build structures above the altitude limit, he said.

In North Woodbury Township, the question wasn’t so much how officials would enforce the law as how they would identify the problem. The supervisors didn’t vote on the issue Tuesday, noting that they need clearer, more specific maps to assess the impact on landowners.

At the hearing Tuesday, several township residents expressed concerns that the regulations could prevent them from building silos or farm buildings, with the restricted area growing lower to the ground as it approaches the airport. One, David Long, said he’d prefer to lose the state road funds if it meant avoiding onerous rules.

“I would much rather pay a little bit more to offset fuel tax than to be burdened or bridled by agencies or bureaucracies who have no idea what it’s like here,” Long said.

While the state Department of Transportation has mentioned the possibility of pulling road funds, Oswalt said, it’s not clear when, or if, the money would be taken. Since the 2007 court precedent based on a York County municipality’s case, no town has reported losing the funds, he said.

The state hasn’t set a deadline for townships to pass the ordinance, planning commission Director David McFarland said at the hearing. Thirteen county municipalities are affected by the rule, including those around the smaller Blue Knob and Cove Valley airports.

“They’re giving people time to catch up with the Supreme Court decision,” McFarland said.

Under the ordinance set for the North Woodbury Township supervisors’ consideration, residents who build objects above the height limits could face fines up to $300 per day.

While the supervisors seemed to agree that the ordinance isn’t their preference, the possibility of repercussions could press them to follow the state court ruling and pass one. If they don’t, Oswalt noted, the township might even be held liable if an approaching plane struck a high-standing structure.

“There are far-reaching and probably unintended consequences,” he said.