At 2,000 feet, the view from Ben Meyers’ Cessna says it all: To the right of the runway, Spanish-style homes crowd together; up ahead, concrete pads await mansions atop a denuded hillside; and to the left, asphalt-roofed duplexes glisten in the sun.
Meyers was flying over Oceanside Municipal Airport in San Diego County, but he could have been circling airports in Elk Grove near Sacramento, Watsonville in Santa Cruz County or Bakersfield in Central California -- all of which are being squeezed by ever-expanding suburbs.
Around the state, sprawl is swallowing the once-vacant lands around municipal airports just as the number of small aircraft is rising, putting the need for such airports and the pressures to close them on a collision course.
“They just don’t get it: You can’t build homes near an airport,” said Meyers, speaking through a headset to be heard over the plane’s spinning propeller during a recent flight. The pilot bemoaned an increase in noise complaints that threatens the landing strip.
Vacant land around the state’s small airports -- built in rural areas decades ago -- is increasingly viewed by local officials as their last chance to house residents and raise tax revenue through shops and big-box stores.
“The city has grown up around the airport, and now a developer wants to go out there and build houses,” said Irma Carson, a city councilwoman in Bakersfield, where officials have asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to close the municipal airport.
Like Bakersfield, communities around the state are moving to build on or near their airports, either by seeking to shut them down or by rezoning acreage that surrounds them from agricultural to residential and commercial.
The trend has left pilots fighting to preserve California’s 324 general aviation airports, used mainly by small aircraft.
“Urban encroachment is the biggest threat to all airports,” said Gary Cathey, a supervisor in the division of aeronautics at the state Department of Transportation.
Aviation advocates face a tough political fight that often pits affluent private pilots who don’t live in neighborhoods where their aircraft are based against communities tired of noise and desperate for tax revenue.
For their part, pilots argue that small airports are needed for far more than recreation, providing staging areas for firefighting aircraft during brush fires and important training grounds for future commercial pilots.
The tug-of-war between pilots and local governments took an unusual turn last fall, when a local congressman quietly amended a federal transportation bill to free Rialto in San Bernardino County from federal obligations to keep its municipal airport open. The City Council then voted to close the facility and replace it with homes and shops.
“The airport wasn’t even breaking even,” said Robb Steel, Rialto’s redevelopment director. “One of the big reasons for wanting to convert it is to turn that around so it generates a surplus for the rest of the city.”
Congressional intervention to help close the airport unnerved pilots who had taken solace in the fact that operators who accept FAA grants to fix or expand their airports are prohibited from closing them.
To prevent a domino effect, aviation officials say they’ve redoubled efforts to educate cities about the benefits of municipal airports.
Two of three flights at these facilities are business-related, they argue, generating $2.53 for the community for every dollar earned on the airport. Smaller airfields are also critical to the transportation food chain: They take small aircraft out of midsized facilities such as Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport, which can then accept more commercial traffic from overcrowded hubs such as Los Angeles International.
“The state has an air transportation system, and every airport is like an onramp or offramp to that system,” said Cathey, the Caltrans supervisor. “Every time one is shut down ... it increases capacity constraints on the system.”
Only two airports have been built in the state in the last 20 years -- both to replace existing facilities that were constrained by sprawling suburbs. Most of the state’s small airports -- many are former military facilities -- were built in rural areas in the early 20th century to separate them from neighborhoods. In the 1930s, the Los Angeles basin had 56 active municipal airports. Today, it has nine.
Many of the state’s existing municipal airports are already full, with pages-long waiting lists for hangar space and tie-downs.
“Lots of airplanes from Van Nuys and Burbank are hangared up here,” said John Harmon, an aircraft kit manufacturer at Bakersfield Municipal Airport. He said his rent would double if the airport closed and he had to move.
In Elk Grove, pilots at Sunset Skyranch found a 12-year waiting list for hangar space at one nearby airport and a seven-year wait at another when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors refused to renew the private airport’s operating permit.
“I have a couple antique airplanes that are fabric and they have to be in a hangar, because they’ll deteriorate overnight if they’re sitting outside,” said Keith Cossairt, one of 60 pilots suing the county, claiming its decision was illegal.
“To replace the square footage I have would be atrocious,” he added. “I’m looking at a couple hundred-thousand to replace them if I could find a space.”
Sacramento supervisors said the airport didn’t provide a unique service, and fast-growing suburbs required them to rezone nearby land from agricultural to residential.
The perception that recreational flying is for the elite, in addition to safety concerns, is often used as an argument by local officials for either shutting down municipal airports or rezoning land around them to build houses, schools and businesses.
“The pilots are very provincial in their interest -- very few of them have a residence in the city of Watsonville,” said John Doughty, the city’s community development director. “There is a lot of resentment among our working-class community, who see these as rich, white guys from Aptos and Santa Cruz who don’t pay taxes in the city.”
Watsonville officials are considering building thousands of residential units and a school on 500 acres near one of the airport’s two runways.
In Redlands, city officials are considering a request from a developer to rezone land south of the airport from agricultural to residential so the company can build 107 homes.
“There is a general concern that any development in proximity to the airport could result in noise complaints and ultimately have a detrimental effect on airport operations,” said Jeff Shaw, the city’s community development director.
Shaw can already see a conflict: “There are helicopter flights that come from the south into the property; however, at least based on our initial data, that’s not sufficient: It may be noisy, but it may not be sufficient to warrant not allowing development.”
California has detailed -- but voluntary -- guidelines that dictate where municipalities can build around their airports. State officials urge cities to avoid creating conflicts by building homes too close to an airport, but often they’re ignored.
Pilots contend that Oceanside officials followed a growing pattern in managing municipal airports in which they stopped making improvements that could generate revenue. Even with a waiting list of 150 pilots, the city has allowed two-thirds of the hangars and tie-downs to remain empty.
“We can probably take fault in the fact that we haven’t allowed it to thrive,” said Jack Feller, one of two council members opposed to suggestions by some city officials that the airport be closed.
The battle in Oceanside has attracted federal attention. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, writing in response to a letter from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), agreed with the congressman that closing the facility would be illegal.
“The Federal Aviation Administration has only rarely granted a sponsor a release from its federal obligations sufficient to allow for the closure of an airport,” Blakey wrote. “Because of the important role that this airport plays in the national airport system, the FAA does not anticipate granting any request for release to allow the closure of this airport.”
The FAA, however, would be unable to stop closure efforts if operators have avoided using federal dollars. In Torrance, for example, the city’s municipal airport, where nearly 500 aircraft are based, hasn’t accepted federal money in decades, allowing officials to close it without any strings attached.
“That is prime real estate at Crenshaw [Boulevard] and the Pacific Coast Highway” near the Palos Verdes Peninsula, said Bill Dunn, vice president of airports for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. “Little by little, the city is chipping off airport property for other uses. They are making a fair chunk of change when they sell it off.”