Call it absolute chaos.
Last year, the Lorain County Commisioners began to toy with the idea of expanding the runway at Lorain County Airport from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The expansion was an immediate hit with industries who could use the elongated runway to land cargo planes; the proposal piqued the interest of a vodka and motorcycle distributor based in the Ukraine. It also caught the eye of a number of citizens who declared the plan would never fly.
"These are hard issues," Sharon Kleppel of Oberlin said. "This affects lives. The community really needs to come together."
Kleppel was among more than 150 attendees at a public meeting to discuss the runway expansion. The Jan. 28 meeting featured short speeches by the county commisioners, followed by a question and answer session. County Commisioner Michael Ross presented the plan as a possible means of reversing the airport's longtime financial woes.
Many of the citizens present at the emotionally charged meeting declared their opposition to the expansion plan, citing possible environmental degredation, financial recklessness and problems posed by urban sprawl.
"Martha's on her way!" squealed Oberlin resident Martha Verda as she hurried to be the first citizen at the microphone. "I don't care how many thousands of feet," Verda said. "But I do care about those us that live close to that noisy pollutant place."
Verda's sentiments were seconded by a noisy round of applause.
City Councilman Ken Sloane, sensing the overwhelming majority of the meeting was in opposition to the expansion, asked those people to raise their hands. Over 100 hands shot up, enthusiastic indicating the audience's opposition to the expansion.
"I thought so," Sloane said smiling.
"Ninety five percent of people at the meeting were from Oberlin," Ross said. "Now, Oberlin is not the only city that will be affected. We started there because we're right in their backyard, but we're going to take it on the road."
Professor of Environmental Studies David Orr spoke for Oberlin College. "Did you ever look through the wrong end of a telescope? We're looking through the wrong end on this issue. We don't have a growth plan. We need a county wide development plan."
Orr's calls for a growth plan shaped much of the evening's discussion.
"Next meeting, I'll be much more focused," Sloane said. "Our air quality is at such a critical level anything could push us over. Some important questions weren't asked."
Sloane, who is adamantly opposed to the expansion of the airport, is also the Conservatory's director of piano technology. According to Assistant Dean of the Conservatory Michael Lynn, there is real concern among the conservatory faculty that longer runways would bring noiser jets.
"It definitely would be a drag for us," Lynn said. "If a jet were landing north of town and it came overhead, there's very little we can do."
Lynn said Finney Chapel might stand to lose the most beneath a crowded sky. Finney was built long before the advent of gas-guzzling horseless carriages. Lynn said the roar of a jet could easily mar a concertgoer's evening of music in Finney.
"I'm opposed to it," College President Nancy Dye said. "The College has taken a stand."
Oberlin resident Wayne Preckle approached the microphone at the public meeting to testify to the din produced by airport traffic.
"I live right across the road from that damn airport," Preckle shouted. "Why pour more money into that dead horse?"
Preckle complained his television was barely audible during the summer months when touch-and-go pilots practice their newly honed skills at the airport and the airport presents its annual air show.
Thomas Dus, an employee at Skysurance which operates at LCRA, said the threat of noise was not quite as grave as it might seem. Dus explained there is a unique flight pattern at LCRA that is designed specifically to avoid Oberlin. Whereas pilots are turning right at nearly every other airport they frequent, when they come to Oberlin, they turn left. "The main reason the flight pattern exists is that Oberlin objected when the airport was first being built," Dus said.
Dus said a larger runway would surely attract larger jets which would primarily contain fan jets as opposed to straight-pipe jet engines that the smaller planes contain. Fan jets, according to Dus, are quieter than the straight-pipe jet engines.
"It would help make the airport more self-sufficient and attract more business," Dus said.
The expansion would allow 97 percent of aircrafts flying today to land safely at Lorain County Airport.
According to Ross, when it comes to planes, bigger does not neccesarily mean louder.
"By the time we're ready for big planes, they'll be as quiet, if not quieter than it is now," Ross said. "It is now a matter of is it going to be a cornfield or a landing strip?"
Butch Suki directs the Lorain County Airport. There's only one way to travel, Suki is fond of saying, unless maybe you get yourself a motorcycle. Suki is proud of his airport, which he likens to a diamond in the rough.
"You have noise pollution when those young guys play those radios with souped-up speakers," Suki said. Echoing Ross, Suki framed the issue in terms of tomorrow's transportation versus yesterday's ways.
"You can't stop progress," Suki said. "I'd like to see our city become a little more diverse. If Ford or U.S. Steel shut down, this county would be a ghost town."
County Commisioner Mary Jo Vasi was the last commissioner to speak at the public meeting. "It is my opinion that I am your servant!" Vasi bellowed. "I'm here right now to hear my bosses."
"I need to hear the truth about the airport," Vasi said. "I belive after 20 years the airport should be self sufficent. I believe it should not be expanding, because taxing concerns me very much."
The airport was created in 1969 as a joint project between the cities of Lorain, Elyria and other towns in Lorain County. The airport never made a profit, but relied instead on subsidies. Last year, Lorain and Elyria pulled out of the airport and the County assumed control.
According to Suki, few airports turn profit. Suki said the economic advantages of a revamped airport would be found not on the books but in the unemployment lines. Suki said airports bring jobs, although those jobs are often served with a heavy helping of debt for the airport.
"People say we should shut the airport down," Suki said. "Well, it's not that simple."
Suki said the federal government would demand some recompensation for the money they have invested in the airport.
Any expansion of the Lorain County runway is still at least a few years away. A number of studies concerning pollution and safety would have to be completed before the airport can break ground.
"It's a political hornet's nest," Sloane said. "They don't have the funding."
Orr said, "The airport ought to be a means, not an end. And the means should be improving the quality of life in this county."
"Bikeways, that's what's Oberlin is about." Oberlin resident Virginia Nord said. "We don't need that airport, we have a dump. That odor is there and it doesn't go away. BFI has got great big trucks. That's enough noise. I don't see any need for this airport."
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 13, February 6, 1998
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