Eagleswood Residents React to Plane Crash

Concerns Include Safety, Quality of Life, Property Values, Environment
By VICTORIA FORD | May 24, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

“Does one of your kids have to die? Do someone else’s kids have to die before you take it seriously?” Eagleswood resident Michelle Paccione challenged Mayor Michael Pasternak and Committeewoman Debra Rivas. By “it” she meant risks posed by activity at Eagles Nest Airport.

“It is taken seriously,” the mayor said.

Still shaken after last week’s plane crash near the airport, residents filled town hall Monday night for the township committee meeting to bring their questions and concerns.

Tuesday evening, May 16, pilot Kenneth Miess Schertz of Texas stopped his Stinson 108 single-engine propeller plane, built in 1947, at Eagles Nest to refuel. Shortly after taking off again, he ran into some trouble and came back. He cut the engine and attempted to land, but as he was gliding he missed the runway and ended up in some trees located between 106 and 108 Laurel Lane. The crash is under investigation.

Paccione, who resides at 106 Laurel Hill Lane, said she knew a plane was falling when she heard the tree branches breaking outside her window, mere feet from where she was sitting.

“I want to know what it’s going to take for the mayor and the land use board in this town to wake up,” she said. She accused officials of rubber-stamping approvals for all of airport owner Peter Weidhorn’s applications. In the 10 years since he purchased the previously defunct airstrip, he has made numerous improvements including runway expansion, lights for night departures and landings, fuel tanks, hangars, a drop zone and more.

The pilot from Texas would have had no reason to be in Eagleswood, Paccione said, if the township hadn’t approved fuel and lights that enabled him to land and take off after dark.

Weidhorn’s always making “improvements,” Paccione said. But, in her view, “there’s nothing he could do to that airport that would make it safer, except for two things: shrink it, or close it.” Anything done to expand it further just attracts more pilots, she said.

Weidhorn was not in attendance at the meeting, but attracting pilots has been a goal since he took over the airport and began to transform it into a state-of-the-art general aviation airport for the flying community.

North Street resident Susan Horner took issue with Paccione’s remarks. First of all, she said, plane crashes are not limited to the vicinities of airports. Accidents can happen anywhere. Second, “What I can’t understand is why Michelle (Paccione) would say ‘unfortunately, the pilot survived.’ That makes me sick, and I’m totally disgusted. Who the hell says something like that?” Paccione said that was part of a private conversation. Horner told Paccione she should be thankful and tend to the injured pilot rather than wish him dead. Paccione said she was the one who called 911 that night.

“I’m very thankful that nobody was killed, nobody was injured,” Horner said. “No problem, just the plane was injured, and the willow tree, so the willow tree is the only one weeping here.”

Laurel Lane resident Ray Mishler, a former aircraft mechanic, wanted to know what kind of fuel was used. He was fairly sure it would be leaded Avgas (which works better in older planes, he said) and suggested only unleaded be used from now on.

He asked what will be done to clean up the ground where the plane crashed and what about soil testing, on account of wells in the ground and children who play outside.

Pasternak said an environmental company would clean it up.

Lori Strobel asked if the airport could be manned, for the sake of enforcement and safety. In her opinion, the trouble started when the airport was opened to commercial operations (banner planes and skydiving).

On a related but separate topic, Sam and Gail Zalfa of Cox’s Crossing Road voiced concern about property values. “We have an ‘air show’ from spring until the end of summer that is absolutely relentless,” Sam said, and “eventually somebody is going to take legal action.”

He and his wife were there to speak out about an old log cabin in a residential part of town that was recently purchased but appears to be a site of illegal activity.

The Zalfas intend no malice against the buyer, they said, but the house has no certificate of occupancy and no septic system. It’s a used car parking lot, where kids have big parties on Sunday nights with liquor store runs and raging bonfires, they said. If the place burns down and someone gets hurt, the whole town could get sued, Sam said, because no one should be there.

Maybe the new owners are going to fix it up and live in it, he said. “But right now, it does not appear that way at all.”

Gail noted they would not have chosen to air the problem in an open forum, but they never got a call back from the township.

The mayor explained Eagleswood has a shared services agreement with Stafford for construction services.

“I pay my taxes to Eagleswood,” Zalf said. “I’m not calling Stafford. I’m not running around with them.”

The mayor said he understood where the Zalfas were coming from. “It should be our responsibility to follow up. I get your point.”

“All I can ask is that you just give us time,” Rivas said. “Our zoning officer works Mondays and Thursday nights. Your letter is dated Tuesday. He was off on Thursday. So tonight’s actually the first opportunity Mike and I have to discuss this with him. So just give us a couple days?”

Turning the discussion back to the airport, Gail Zalfa said neighbors fear not just for their safety but for their quality of life. For one thing, banner planes come and go all day long, creating noise and vibration, she said. Weidhorn has a small sign up asking pilots to “please observe our neighbors,” she continued, but instead of abiding by the agreed-upon flight patterns (pilots are supposed to bank left and head out over the Parkway), they cut corners to save gas on a regular basis.

“The airport’s not going to go away. We know that. It’s not just about the crashing, it’s about following the rules. That’s all we’re asking.”

After closing public comment, the mayor commended the volunteer fire company for its quick response and thanked firefighters for everything they do.


Comments (1)
Posted by: Samuel Zalfa | May 26, 2017 10:24

Please do not sensationalize.  At no time was "illegal activity" insinuated or assumed against current owners.  There was"a" party (singular) on one Sunday night.  Not multiple Sunday nights (plural).  There was "a" bonfire.  Not a "raging" bonfire.  At present time, multiple trailers and a blocked up truck have been staged on property.  It gives the "appearance" of a commercial venture in an R-1 zone.  Eagleswood and Stafford have a responsibility to apply CO, Letter of Intent, and zoning standards uniformly to all residents.   That is all we are asking. (We are not normally attendees of Township meetings.)  This is all relative to our airport situation. Our only concern is maintaining our property value for future resale.  If this was your home I'm sure you would have the same concerns.  Once again, no malice is intended to current owners.   

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