Eagles Nest Airport, Town Officials Address Past Issues, Present Concerns, Hopes for Future

By VICTORIA FORD | Apr 03, 2019
File Photo by: Jack Reynolds Eagles Nest Airport

A relationship with an airport will have its ups and downs. During the nearly 10 years since Eagles Nest Airport was purchased by Peter Weidhorn, Eagleswood Township officials and residents have expressed a range of emotions toward the airport with regard to its role in the community and its impacts on neighbors’ quality of life. Despite a somewhat rocky history, looking ahead, Mayor Michael Pasternak said he hopes to “find good common ground.”

Weidhorn appeared before the Eagleswood Committee on March 25 to announce the transition of airport ownership from himself to an association of 20 pilots, all airplane owners and hangar tenants, with a five-member board of which Weidhorn serves as president. He is also the airport’s operating manager and maintains the controlling financial interest. A group of his pilots attended with him.

Weidhorn recalled that when he first came to the governing body in 2009 after acquiring the long-defunct air strip, the committee members at that time (James Pine, Wayne Thomas and Debra Rivas) wanted to know: “How can we believe you?” He asked them not to believe his words but instead to let him demonstrate his commitment to transforming the airport into a state-of-the-art facility and an asset to the town.

The property had been zoned for an airport for more than 50 years already at that point.

Since then, Weidhorn has invested $5 million in updating the airport with hangars, electricity, plumbing/septic, fuel and maintenance services. Today the airport is home to banner towing, biplane rides and skydiving operations, as well as the Atlantic City Steel Pier helicopter.

“I believe the residents should welcome this opportunity and take comfort in the knowledge that the airport will be operated by a dedicated board of pilots both financially and aerodynamically committed to the airport,” Weidhorn said. He thanked the committee for allowing him to turn a blight into a modern, updated asset, throwing in a reminder that the airport pays $50,000 a year in taxes and is a resource for the town and public. Eagles Nest is privately owned but licensed for public access, available for residents to use and enjoy, he said.

Tom Conheeney, a resident of Manahawkin and North Beach, and vice president of Eagles Nest’s new board of directors, spoke in support of Weidhorn. From an operational perspective, Weidhorn has made it safer and welcoming, he said. Moreover, he said, the association is made of experienced aviators who care and want the best for the airport and the town.

“We have had a few bumps and some unfortunate incidents, but together we have accomplished much,” Weidhorn told the committee. The unfortunate incidents have included two small-plane crashes in May and June 2016, resulting in no major injuries.

One of the “bumps” the committee seemingly cannot get over is a perceived breach of trust in 2014, concerning the installation of runway lights that enabled around-the-clock takeoffs and landings. Weidhorn got the approvals he needed from the state Department of Transportation, which governs airport licensing. In the fall of 2014, the runway lights, PAPIs (precision approach path indicators) and beacon were flight-tested and designated as operational, and the airport’s operating license was updated to grant both day and night operations, making night landings fully permissible. The way Weidhorn saw it, as a general aviation airport, he couldn’t stop airplanes from taking off or landing there at any hour of the day or night, so he might as well make it safe to do so.

“You weren’t completely honest with us,” Pasternak told Weidorn. He feels Weidhorn misled the committee by telling the members the airport would operate from dawn to dusk, but then it became a 24-hour operation without the committee’s knowledge – and “that never sat well with me,” Pasternak said.

In July 2016, the airport filed a map amendment application for a transportation node designation, which is essentially a waiver from Coastal Area Facilities Review Act regulations concerning impervious coverage. The Office for Planning Advocacy had given preliminary approval, and the state planning commission in Trenton was expected to make a final determination later that summer, but it never did. The proposed node would be located on 111 acres, 107 of which are disturbed, in a CAFRA area, zoned for Light Business. The existing designation for the land in question is Planning Area 4 (rural), and the new designation would be Heavy Industry Transportation Utility Node.

Eagleswood originally passed a resolution accepting the node and wrote a letter in support of the application but has reversed its position in the time the application has been sitting idle. Weidhorn hopes the town will re-issue a letter of support to help him secure the waiver for impervious coverage, so he could build a pole barn to store airport equipment.

The node would also benefit the town, Weidhorn explained, because the area in question includes Eagleswood’s maintenance facility and landfill, as well as the adjacent business park, all of which could be enhanced with this waiver.

“There’s no need to expand the airport,” Weidhorn told the committee. The waiver would simply allow him to build a storage shed. He can’t put another piece of asphalt down, he said, because the town can’t approve it, and the DEP wants the state map altered to allow for the CAFRA adjustment. But the waiver would also eliminate a hurdle later on, if the association ever wanted to add more hangars, for example – though there’s no intention or demand for that right now.

But Pasternak expressed unease about the node designation because he didn’t know what else might come from it. “After all, it was the DOT that had full control of the airport, not this township, and that was made evident to us,” Pasternak said.

“We can protect us from what we see, but we can’t protect us from what we don’t see (in the future),” the mayor remarked later on in the meeting.

In his written response to the DOT Division of Aeronautics’ notice about Eagles Nest’s license renewal, Pasternak said he and the committee do not object to the airport’s relicensing (“Why should we? It’s in the master plan,” he said), but he does want the DOT to be aware of what is around the airport, “because they’re sitting in Trenton.”

It’s embarrassing, Pasternak said, to have guests in the backyard in the summertime, “and I have banner planes doing kamikaze acts behind the trees of my home.”

So he wrote to the DOT that the township continues to receive complaints from residents, mostly pertaining to low-flying and/or loud aircraft associated with skydiving and banner towing.

“Let’s face it,” he said to Weidhorn. “It’s not the pilot going for his hundred-dollar hamburger. They’re not the problem.”

On a positive note, Pasternak also told the DOT that “Weidhorn makes countless efforts to be a good neighbor and continues to be a supportive member of the community.”

To Weidhorn, he said, “I do give you credit for the development there, and for being responsive.” He wished all the pilots the best of luck.

In response to Deputy Mayor Nick Sommaripa’s question about the airport’s economic benefits to Eagleswood, Weidhorn said the airport’s tenants and users patronize local businesses and municipal services. The waiver might also prove useful to the township in the event that certain paving is desired in the future. The airport in general is a benefit to the town.It is available to the community for recreational and educational purposes for Scouts, 4-H, etc. Schools can bring students to the airport and spark their interest in aviation and STEAM lessons. Charter flights come in all the time; planes and helicopters are rented; corporate helicopters and State Police use it.

Sommaripa explained the committee members have a “tricky job,” in wanting to support the airport while also protecting residents’ home values, especially those in the airport’s proximity, and preserving their quality of life.

Weidhorn said many specific flight plans, patterns, departures and protocols have been put in place to try to limit the impact on neighbors. Signs are posted urging airport users to be respectful of neighbors. It doesn’t matter who was there first, he said. “We’re there together today, and we have to respect each other today.”

Later, Stafford Forge Road resident Jon Cripps suggested the best thing Weidhorn could do to be a good neighbor is to evict the skydiving business from his hangar.

Tanglewood Drive resident (and township land use board member) Patrick Filardi agreed, saying the skydiving and banner planes have ruined the peace in the town.

His concern with the node, he said, is that it allows up to 85 percent impervious coverage for whoever owns it. The airport is 107 acres, which would mean up to 90 acres of it could be paved at any point in the future, he pointed out. The runoff from the airport runs directly into Westecunk Creek, via a culvert beneath the runway, he said.

Filardi, along with Naomi Jainarine of Tuckerton, said the node application could conflict with the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s recent proposal to upgrade the Westecunk Creek to a more restrictive protected status. The DEP wants to amend its Surface Water Quality Standards to “upgrade 749 river miles to Category One (C1) anti-degradation designation based on exceptional ecological significance and exceptional fisheries resource.” (See related story.) Impervious surface is an evaluation factor, according to the rule proposal, because “research has consistently shown a strong relationship between the percentage of impervious surface in a watershed and the watershed’s overall health.”

Jainarine is the Mullica River Watershed ambassador with the DEP’s AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassador program. AmeriCorps, which she described as a civilian version of the Peace Corps, is comprised of 20 people per watershed throughout the state.

A C1 designation is not to be taken lightly, she said; it’s based on that area’s ecological, recreational and economic value. Jainarine predicted the node designation, if approved, would bring a lot of attention to the area, and with it an expectation for the property owner to work closely with the DEP and possibly the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The node application has already been opposed by Save Barnegat Bay and the Sierra Club, Pasternak added.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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