A lesson on how not to behave when doing advocacy work…

9 minute read

April 27, 2021, 12:55 AM

Lately, there has been a small grassroots movement in Montgomery Village called “Citizens for Airpark Safety” complaining about noise from the Montgomery County Airpark (GAI/KGAI), which is a small public-use general aviation airport located in the Gaithersburg area.  I had heard rumblings about this from a few folks on a local Montgomery Village group that Elyse and I are in, but then it recently made its way to the physical space on Sunday when I found this on my front door as I was leaving for work:

Citizens for Airpark Safety flyer

The doorbell camera caught the person leaving the flyer, a woman named Karen Sheehan:

Karen Sheehan, caught in the act by my doorbell camera
(Make a mental note of this now, because it will be relevant later.)

In any case, the flyer discusses noise coming from the airpark, and encourages people to take action against the airpark based on aircraft noise.  Extra points for the Shutterstock image that the group stoleTo give you an idea of how close the airpark is to Montgomery Village, my house is 1.6 miles from the center of the runway as the crow flies.  I regularly see planes flying nearby, as one of the approaches to the airport is a short distance from my house.  The aircraft noise is not loud by any means, nor is it very frequent.  This is not like living in Virginia Beach, where there is jet noise from a military base on a routine basis.  At the airpark, the planes that fly are small turboprops, such as this one that I photographed last July:

N2927Q, about to land at GAI

This plane is part of a fleet operated by the Washington International Flight Academy, which is a flight school that has operated out of the airpark since 1989.

I admit – going off of the flyer, as well as the stuff I’ve seen in the Montgomery Village group, this is one of those NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) movements that I dismiss out of hand, because it’s attempting to fight an existing facility that had been approved long ago, and had been operating for quite some time.  The Montgomery County Airpark is by no means a new thing, having begun operation in 1960.  In other words, this movement is trying to fight a fight that ended a long time ago, if it ever existed in the first place.  Montgomery Village, where the complaints are originating, was founded in 1962, after the airpark was already in operation, and the first residents didn’t move in until 1967.  In other words, the airport predates every single resident of Montgomery Village, and therefore, it was each resident’s responsibility to make themselves aware that there was an airport nearby.  That’s my main criticism about this form of NIMBYism: you came after they did.  The airport didn’t encroach on your neighborhood.  Rather, your neighborhood encroached on the airport.

This is not unique to Montgomery Village, though.  I remember a number of years ago on Reddit, when someone was complaining about noise coming from a business near their townhouse in Rockville.  I let them have it, with the they-were-there-first argument.  In that case, they were complaining about the building that now houses the ethnic grocery store Great Wall Supermarket on Route 355, and how the noise from that store was allegedly impacting their quality of life.  I came back with the argument that there was no way that they didn’t know that they were moving near a commercial property, since according to property record data, the building that now houses the supermarket was built in 1963, while the townhouses were built in 1982.  Therefore, it was the responsibility of everyone in that townhouse development to be aware that there were commercial properties nearby, and if they didn’t like that, it was their choice not to move there.

All in all, I have little sympathy for people who move into an area and then immediately complain about the things that have existed around their house long before them.  Those things are part of what makes the area what it is.  It’s one thing to fight proposed developments that have not been constructed yet, or significant changes to an existing development, but it takes a certain amount of brass to come in and demand that everyone else change in order to accommodate you.  In general, it doesn’t work that way.

But it doesn’t end there.  I let Elyse know about the flyer, and sent the photo of Sheehan to her, along with the full video clip.  She took it and ran with it, posting her own photo of the flyer, along with the image of Sheehan, to the Montgomery Village group:

Elyse's post in response to the flyer

In short, her post reiterates what she had said in the past, and mostly follows my stance, that the airport predates Montgomery Village, and also discusses things like runway length.

Sheehan responded:

Sheehan's response to Elyse's post

I think that we were all a bit surprised that for a flyer that discussed things entirely within the context of aircraft noise, the real issue that they had was actually lead emissions.  Turns out that small aircraft still operate using leaded fuel (who knew?), and the concern was about where that lead landed once it came out of the plane.  That’s a fair issue, since lead emissions are indeed toxic, but no one would have ever taken that from anything in that flyer or any previous communications from people representing that group.

Elyse asked a good question: what research has been done on the issue of lead in Montgomery Village?  Sheehan’s response came up a little bit short:

Sheehan's response to Elyse

That response was a bit too general.  Elyse prodded a little more on this as far as its specific applicability to Montgomery Village further down the thread, both directly to Sheehan, as well as in response to another commenter:

Elyse's response to Sheehan prodding further

Elyse's response to another commenter

Sheehan responded:

Sheehan's response to Elyse

So… no, there has not been any research on lead pollution in Montgomery Village.  From what I can tell, this group has taken a public stance on a NIMBY issue that has long since been resolved, and has what was a heretofore undisclosed “real” mission about lead pollution (which is a legitimate environmental concern), but hasn’t undertaken any actual research on the matter.  Okay, then.

Another commenter hit the nail right on the head:

Cary Abend regarding the movement's tactics

If your real concern is lead pollution, say as much.  Don’t go around complaining about noise when that’s not your actual concern.  They could probably get some traction trying to fundraise to conduct a proper study on the lead issue.  I might even let them take a soil sample from my front yard in furtherance of the matter, since particulate matter raining down from exhaust overhead could very well end up inside of me, and that stuff has cumulative effects.  The paltry amount of aircraft noise that we get, I don’t care about, and comes across to me like people yelling at clouds.  After all, you moved in knowing that there was an airport nearby.  But the whole lead thing feels like a bait-and-switch to me.  Don’t get everyone all riled up about noise, when you’re really concerned about lead.  If your real concern is about lead, then say lead.

The discussion went on a bit, where Sheehan made various claims and attempts to conflate noise and lead, which other people then deconstructed.  Then this exchange happened:

Sheehan's exchange with Elyse

That’s a change of tone: Sheehan actually had no issue with the airpark at all, despite the earlier claims about noise.  Her actual issue was with the flight school and its fleet of planes.  She made the claim that the median age of the flight school’s planes was 42 years.  That information checked out, as I ran the numbers through Excel and verified aircraft registrations, and the median age is 42 years.  The mean fleet age is 36.  Elyse was also correct, that these small aircraft are really expensive.  A brand new Cessna 172 will run you around $400K, and one manufactured in the 21st century will still run you a quarter of a million or more.  I wasn’t able to verify the cost of a conversion from aviation fuel to car gas.

But then Sheehan turned the conversation back on Elyse: why are you so interested in defending the airport?  When someone turns the conversation away from the issues and onto a participant like that, it tells me that they know that they have lost the argument.  What does Elyse’s motivation have to do with the issue of airplane noise and/or lead pollution?

In any case, it was clear that Sheehan had lost the argument, as Cary Abend demonstrated:

Cary Abend's first response

Cary Abend's second response

And as was indicated earlier, Sheehan has no evidence of such things.  The rest of the thread became a bit of a pile-on mostly in support of the airpark.  The post was ultimately deleted by group moderators, which I consider a disservice to the community in general.  It also harms the credibility of the Facebook group if any posts regarding the community that are remotely controversial are removed, as that has a chilling effect on discussions of issues relating to the community if there’s reason to believe that they’re going to be dirty-deleted by an anonymous moderator.  That is also why I love this space so much, because I am more than happy to hold people accountable on here, and no one can dirty-delete that.

I also got the sense that Sheehan was a bit salty about the fact that Elyse called her out in the original post by sharing the photo of her placing the flyer on our front door.  She sent Elyse a direct message about it:

Sheehan's PM to Elyse

It was clear that she didn’t want to be publicly associated with the movement that she was passionate enough about to go around posting flyers regarding it on people’s front doors.  My take on that?  Let me play a sad song for you on the world’s smallest violin.  In other words, welcome to the world of issue activism and politics.  I consider the posting of the photo to be completely fair game, even if it is a far less flattering shot than what one might post as their Facebook profile photo.  Sheehan stepped onto our property, where there is a camera in plain view from the street.  We control the camera, and can do whatever we want with the camera’s footage, including releasing it to the public, and it is a well established legal doctrine that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when out in public.  It was entirely her decision to enter our property, where a camera has existed for more than a year.  Additionally, it says a lot about her cause that she is most concerned about her identity being revealed in connection with her cause rather than about the cause itself.  If you’re that passionate about it, get out there and advocate for it.  Be part of the movement.  Sheehan’s getting all hot and bothered about a photo of her doing her thing posting flyers tells me that she doesn’t want to be held accountable for her actions, which gives her cause less credibility in my eyes.  Politics truly is a dirty pool, and nothing is off limits when it comes to politics.  If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  That her daughter saw her photo on the security camera and got upset over it is not our problem.  If you don’t want to upset her, then don’t do anything that is going to upset her if you get called out for it.  Ultimately, Sheehan blocked Elyse, which amused both of us.  This was not too surprising, though, as another person from this group blocked me when I called them out for their pitch a while back.

So that’s that, I suppose.  If you’re doing advocacy work, be truthful about what your cause is about, do your research first before you speak, be prepared to defend your stances on the issues that you’re advocating for, and expect that you will be called out for your actions and be held accountable for them.