Several comments to today’s Café blogs point out the influence of developers and elected officials on airports. As a result, our air transportation system suffers. The two airports that I know the most about — Montgomery Field and Brown Field — are examples of how convoluted the process can be.

These two airports are run by the Real Estate Assets Department of the city of San Diego. The airports director and his staff are great, but they report to people who deal in leases not runways.

For the past decade, that arrangement has resulted in huge surpluses in the Airport Enterprise Fund — that’s good. Yet mismanagement of leases resulted in three big lawsuit settlements that cost millions — that’s bad. What didn’t get spent was deferred maintenance — there are huge cracks in pavement in the main runway at Montgomery Field and several areas that are raveling (a technical term to describe how the stones in asphalt pavement come apart) — that’s a tragedy! Brown Field is not much better and the airport staff estimate $30 million of work will be required to rehabilitate just the airside infrastructure of both airports — that’s amazing!

So, the city practice of running airports under real estate directors has literally run the airports into the ground. Meanwhile, the aviation community has rebounded from restrictions in 2001 and shown growth with new, modern, technologically advanced aircraft being based at the airports. There is growth in demand. But not much economic development at the airports.

If the city viewed airports as transportation and visitor assets, then one would expect maintenance to be kept up to date and economic development to be a critical priority.

During the same time, there have been troubling development pressures around airports that restrict aviation operations and raise safety concerns.

Sunroad Centrum 12 Allowed by City Airport Zoning

Amazing, but true. The city zoning ordinance that deals with development near airports allows buildings within 3/4 mile to be any height they want. Despite promises to the FAA and Caltrans when accepting airport improvement grants, despite federal and state laws, the city did not, and has not yet, protected the airspace around its airports, only the noise complaints!

In-N-Out Burger in a Runway Protection Zone

The FAA says you need 1,000 feet off the end of a runway to allow planes to stop without hitting anything. The In-N-Out restaurant across highway 163 from Montgomery Field is within that safety zone.

The city actually passed an ordinance to overrule the FAA standard and allow the building to stay. The developers got their way and the aviation community takes the risks. It may be a great place to view takeoffs, but not a safe place to do so.

Land Use Compatibility Plans

Development around airports is a huge concern to the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics. Land use plans are mandated by state law and define what is “compatible” with aviation operations, setting criteria for noise, annoyances from overflight, protection of navigable airspace and safety of people both flying and on the ground.

For years, SANDAG was the commission to set these policies, but they have been woefully inadequate to protecting anything but noise.

Recent state law mandated updates to every land use plan using a new handbook. That brought the developers, their lawyers, the community planning groups, out of the woodwork to complain about “their rights” being infringed — leaving the pilot groups aghast about “our rights” to make use of a national air transportation system.

Fortunately, the current aviation-savvy Airport Land Use Commission invited all stakeholders to build consensus on future land use plans. (About 50 of us have been working for 15 months in a group called ATAG and hope to have plans completed by year end or early next year.) But Senator Kehoe has introduced Senate Bill 10 to shift these plans back to SANDAG — without assurances of aviation expertise nor the funding to keep them updated.

Famous Names of Encroaching Developments

Who allowed the Laurel Street parking structure to obscure the landing threshold of the runway at Lindbergh Field? Who allowed the Bressi Ranch housing development to occupy land immediately adjacent to the approach to Carlsbad Palomar Airport because it was outside the “airport influence area” drawn by some gerrymandering land use planner? Why was the Airport Land Use Commission powerless to stopBuck Knives from developing housing off the departure runway at Gillespie Field?

And why is the Sunroad Centrum 12 office towernot restricted in height by a city ordinance?

Because the land use plans allowed them to happen.

Influence and Skewed Values

As long as the priorities for airport development are in the hands of real estate specialists and not air transportation professionals, we will continue to suffer from skewed values. They can justify other uses as “better” than economic development of air transportation.

The San Diego area has six urban airports that provide a wealth of economic benefits (the six include Lindbergh Field, Montgomery Field, Brown Field, Carlsbad Palomar Airport, Oceanside Airport, Gillespie Field). Combined they serve 1.2 million take offs and landings a year, or one take off or landing every 15 seconds from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day all year long. That’s a lot of aviation. Why not take better advantage of that potential?

What’s it all mean to pilots?

As you can tell, people like me who fly — for business, for pleasure, for transportation, for career opportunities — have to deal with a lot of non-aviation issues to protect the air transportation system. Thanks for the opportunity to share some of our perspectives.


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