After nearly two years of debate, discussion, painstaking deliberations and wailing and gnashing of teeth, the Leighton Township Board finally gave tentative approval Monday night to a proposed air park near 144th and Kalamazoo Avenues.
The board voted 4-0 to tentatively approve a rezoning, from rural residential to planned development, to accommodate a 2,000-foot air strip for use by five planes, with four residence proposed by Galloway Landings. Developer Clark Galloway and Township Supervisor Steve Deer, who recused himself from proceedings. They had their plans scaled down a great deal since first proposed in November of 2015.
The proposals have been met a firestorm of protests and Planning Commission and Township Board meetings and even a court case. The Planning Commission had voted 3-2 last April to recommend against approval for the development.
Those who support the air strip maintain it would be an economic asset to the community. Those opposed insist it would cause noise and safety problems.
The new Township Hall was packed to the gills with standing room only for the special public hearing. The meeting also was attended by two attorneys for the township, the township’s planner, zoning enforcement officer Kirk Scharphorn of Professional Code Inspections and even a court reporter.
Resident Nick Barlow asked township officials how much taxpayers had to pick up the tab for having so many professionals, but Clerk Mary Lou Nieuwenhuis responded by saying, “This issue is very important to the applicant, to the surrounding neighborhood and to the township.”
Deer was not present, but Galloway spoke briefly about his scaled-back project, telling board members, “i am prepared to do whatever is legally necessary for me to abide by your decision.”
But Kate Scheltema, perhaps the most outspoken opponent of the project, reiterated that she has grave concerns about the safety of nearby residents, adding that another huge problem is that if the rezoning is approved, the township will lose control of the air park’s aviation activities, which then will be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Township Attorney Clifford Bloom confirmed that the township will lose control of what the planes do, but still can control the land.
“The township doesn’t have any control of the flights once they (the planes) leave the ground,” Bloom said. “We cannot guarantee any contract to enforce restrictions on flights.”
“So I and my neighbors are stuck with the noise and nuisance,” replied Luann Neuhoff. “That’s very alarming to me.”
Scheltema has long been critical of planes flying over her horse farm and spooking animals.
Dave Zylstra insisted that a pilot of a plane using the current air strip was only 50 feet above his house, calling as dangerous as “an SUV traveling 80 miles an hour within 50 feet of your children.” His wife, Jane, insisted that the plane did not get above the trees.
Barlow said there is a video of a plane going only about 30 feet above Scheltemas’ barn.
Wolfgang Grotendriek, the pilot in question, disputed the assertions.
“I follow all air strip guidelines,” he said. “At no point am I within 30, 50 or 75 feet of houses… I’m doing whatever I can not to cause any problems.”
Mrs. Dykstra also took issue with the assertion that noise problems with the planes are minimal and no louder than lawn mowers.
Though most of the people who attended the meeting were there to express opposition, Nieuwenhuis noted the board had received only 27 written communications against the project, but 82 in favor.
Township Planner Andy Moore walked board members through all of the conditions that were required to be met in order for approval to be granted. All four board members present unanimously agreed that all conditions were satisfied.
Moore said he struggled with the question of whether Galloway’s project is compatible with neighboring residents, but, “I think Mr. Galloway has attempted to integrate this project with the neighborhood as much as possible.”
The most important conditions were that the air park is consistent with the rural residential character of the area, that the neighborhood adjacent is afforded sufficient protections, that the process before deciding took everything into account, including traffic, water drainage, the environment, soil erosion, property values and a variety of other considerations, and that it is generally compatible with rural residential and agriculture within the district.
Nieuwenhuis said, “It seems there has been an air strip (at that site) for many years and it seems compatible.”
Scheltema later took issue with the comment, insisting the air strip had fallen into disuse for more than six years since 2010.
Scheltema’s parting shot to the board was, “The decision actually was not a surprise. But I heard a lot of I don’t knows’ tonight… We invited you to come out and see our property. You couldn’t understand it if you didn’t experience it.”
PHOTO: A large group of citizens, standing room only, appeared at the Leighton Township Hall Monday night for the special public Hearing.