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Airport Plan Remains Up in the Air

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Point Mugu Regional Airport.

Ventura County residents could use it to fly to San Francisco, Denver or Las Vegas. Companies could ship products to faraway markets via air freight carriers. And cities could use it as a selling point to attract new businesses.

That was the vision of county officials nearly four years ago when the U.S. Navy first offered to open its runway at Point Mugu Naval Air Station to commercial air traffic.

A regional airport, they said, would boost economic development and help take Ventura County into the 21st century.

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But that same dream of a regional airport struck others as a nightmare.

For many Camarillo residents, it was a frightening prospect. They were quick to launch a counteroffensive against the proposal, citing fears that noise and pollution from commercial jetliners could wreak havoc on their community.

“We’re opposed to any commercial activity over there--cargo or passenger,” said Arlene Beller, who collected more than 400 signatures from residents opposing the project. “How can they think of adding more pollutants to the atmosphere?”

And beyond Camarillo, others joined the opposition--arguing that a regional airport would inevitably lead to too much surrounding industrial growth and push the region one step closer to becoming another Los Angeles or Orange County.

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The debate was hot, but only for a brief time. Then the issue seemed to vanish, slipping by the wayside as Point Mugu fought to keep its base from being shut down by the Department of Defense in the post-Cold War era.

But it was far from dead.

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Today, the Point Mugu Regional Airport Authority--a panel of elected officials from four cities and the county who still support the airport project--continues to push ahead with its plans.

The authority still has no contract agreement with the Navy. And there is no commitment from cargo carriers or passenger airlines that they would even agree to operate here.

Officials, however, remain optimistic that a regional airport will be a vital part of Ventura County’s future. And they insist that they are inching toward their goal.

In recent months, they say, the prospect of Camarillo State Hospital’s conversion to a four-year Cal State university has only made their chances better.

“An airport would have a big impact on the local economy,” said Supervisor Frank Schillo, who chairs the airport authority. “As businesses grow here, they’re going to need an airport.”

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Pivotal in the debate is the Navy. Point Mugu officials say they welcome a joint-use airport, but only if it does not interfere with military operations.

The Navy made its original offer because a sharp decline in military flights in recent years has left its airfield with plenty of flight time that could be sold to commercial airlines to help reduce costs. Military flights at the base have dropped from 70,000 in 1990 to 37,334 in 1996, officials said.

“The advantage of a joint-use airport to the Navy is that it would help pay for maintenance of our airfield,” Capt. Anthony Parisi, public works officer at Point Mugu, said last week. “That is the whole reason for this. We want somebody to help defray our costs.”

Runway maintenance and operating costs at Point Mugu during the current fiscal year are estimated at $441,000, with that figure expected to rise to $1.3 million in fiscal 1998-99, Parisi said. Much of the increased cost is for ongoing repairs.

Despite these factors, however, there are several sticking points holding up a contract agreement between the airport authority and the Navy--the first hurdle that must be overcome before development of a regional airport can take place.

The authority submitted a draft agreement last year that called for the Navy to lease some of its property for commercial airport operations, but that proposal was deemed unacceptable by Navy officials.

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From the start, the Navy has said its offer was simply to share its 11,000-foot-long runway--large enough to handle any size aircraft. The Navy’s position is that any passenger terminals, hangars or parking facilities would have to be built off the Point Mugu base.

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Airport authority officials, however, have taken the view that it does not make sense to purchase land next to Navy property when so much of the base goes unused.

With the Navy refusing to back down, the airport authority is now exploring alternatives for the location of all the facilities that would normally be part of an airport operation. One possibility is leasing property from the adjacent California Air National Guard.

But such a lease agreement would have to be on a short-term basis only, says National Guard Vice Air Cmdr. Ed Bellion.

“If they wanted to use our ramp to park an aircraft until their facility was built, then I would consider that short term,” he said. “Because we use all of our facilities on a daily basis, long-term use wouldn’t be possible.”

The authority faces other problems as well. Concrete and steel buildings at the Navy base that are used to store weapons and munitions loaded onto military aircraft may also have to be moved for safety reasons.

“The rules right now preclude us from operating commercial aircraft near these weapons,” Parisi said. “We could relocate them, but that costs money. And where the money is going to come from I don’t know.”

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Another obstacle to a regional airport is that, under current law, landing fees collected from commercial carriers using the Navy’s runway would not go to Point Mugu. Instead, they would go to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Schillo says he plans to work with Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) about drafting legislation that would allow landing fees to be directed back to Point Mugu--giving the Navy more of an economic incentive to support the airport plan.

Even with the obstacles facing the airport authority, Schillo says he is confident that an agreement with the Navy can be worked out.

“We are not on hold,” he said. “We are still working and meeting with Navy officials to resolve our problems. I think it’s possible we could have an agreement by the end of the year.”

Once an agreement is reached, he says, the authority would apply for grant money from the Federal Aviation Administration to pay for start-up operations of the airport.

Some money could be used to lease or purchase property for the airport and also to move the weapons buildings at the Navy base, Schillo said.

The next step would be for the authority to aggressively recruit air carriers.

But that raises the issue of whether major air carriers would really be interested in launching Ventura County operations.

Representatives for United Parcel Service and Federal Express said last week they still need to know more about the demand for freight or mail service before making any commitments to expand into Ventura County.

“Whether it makes sense to take a plane to Ventura is hard to say,” said Ken Shapiro, a spokesman for Louisville-based UPS. “But we’re always looking at options. If we find that it’s to the advantage of our customers and efficiency of our operation to change the operation, then we will do that.”

As for passenger service, a 1995 study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments projected that Ventura County residents will be making 2 million trips a year out of Los Angeles and Burbank airports by the turn of the century and 2.5 million by the year 2010.

A regional airport here could tap that huge market.

“There’s potential,” said Mike Armstrong, senior aviation analyst for SCAG. “It’s just a matter of whether the airlines think that it’s worth their while to provide the flights to exploit that potential.”

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Several airline representatives said last week that they would be willing to look at serving the county. But they also say they still need more information about passenger demand before making any commitments.

“We would have to look at what the growth potential would be,” said Linda Rutherford, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines. “As California continues to grow, one of the things we are always looking at is new markets.”

America West spokesman Gus Whitcomb took a similar view.

“California has been extremely good to America West and so we would look at any new opportunities that were available,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is you have a $30-million plane that you have to put where it makes the most dollars and sense.”

Los Angeles-area airports are already operating near capacity and are expected to have trouble keeping up with passenger and freight demand as Southern California continues to grow.

According to its new master plan, Los Angeles International Airport is expected to go from handling 54 million passengers a year to 98 million over the next two decades. Freight tonnage is also expected to more than double during this time, going from 1.7 million tons to 4.2 million.

“The problem in the region is that there are going to be too few commercial airports, not too many,” said Jack Graham, chief planner for Los Angeles’ four airfields, including LAX. “So we would be very supportive of a joint-use airport at Point Mugu.”


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