P.G. aims to avert plane crash risk around Andrews

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Photo - The scene of a 2008 medical helicopter crash near Joint Base Andrews (AP file photo)
The scene of a 2008 medical helicopter crash near Joint Base Andrews (AP file photo)
Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

One would assume that a church would be the last place to be destroyed from on high.

But Prince George's County lawmakers have decided not to allow any more houses of worship -- or restaurants, bars or theaters -- to be built around Joint Base Andrews for fear of plane crashes.

The county is creating a set of "safety zones" around the base, known as "the president's airport," where construction of any facilities where large amounts of people might gather is prohibited.

"This is the result of 24 months of work," said county planner Ray Dubicki. "It is time-limited, geographically focused and narrowly tailored."

In addition to serving as the home base for Air Force One, Joint Base Andrews has about 141,000 annual aircraft operations carried out by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Maryland State Police and all branches of the military. About 41 properties are currently within the base's safety zones.

Some church leaders were concerned that the zoning change would hurt their ability to bring in worshippers and hold events.

"It's not very clear as to whether or not existing churches, houses of assembly, businesses in this area would still be able to operate various extensions," said Jerome Bell, pastor at the Maryland Family Christian Center. He noted that the base was so close, he could almost walk there from his church.

Dubicki said the new zoning will affect only new development; existing churches and other facilities can continue to operate normally and are free to change ownership, rezone or reconstruct if they are damaged or destroyed.

"There is no difference in how the congregations are being treated compared to theaters, entertainment centers, food and drink establishments," Dubicki said. "It's all about population density."

About 65 percent of airport accidents happen in surrounding areas, mostly due to emergency landings, according to Dubicki. The goal of the new zoning is to keep the number of places where people congregate for long periods of time to a minimum.

In April, a Navy training jet from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia crashed into an apartment complex less than three miles away in Virginia Beach. Though there were no fatalities, 40 apartment units were destroyed in the crash and the resulting fire.

Four years earlier, in September 2008, a medical helicopter crashed three miles from Joint Base Andrews. The crash, which killed four of the five people onboard, occurred after the helicopter was diverted to Andrews due to dangerously foggy weather.

The zoning change is temporary -- the restrictions will disappear at the end of next year, though the County Council has the option of extending them for six months while the county works on an overarching zoning plan for the base and its surrounding areas. The council and Planning Board will likely work on making the changes permanent next year.

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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Matt Connolly

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner