Aircraft club’s long glide at Fairview Park on the skids as hiatus extended

Chris Adamczyk attaches a wing to his glider at Costa Mesa's Fairview Park model airplane flying field in 2019.
Chris Adamczyk, seen in 2019, attaches a wing to his glider at Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park model airplane flying field, where flights have been grounded for more than a year.
(Courtesy of the Harbor Soaring Society)

A complex debate over whether city parks should be used for recreation or preservation is causing some turbulence in the city of Costa Mesa.

Fairview Park — a 208-acre open space home to some 30 protected species that has been found to contain artifacts from at least two Native American tribes — is also a draw for residents who, for decades, have biked, picnicked and recreated on its ample plains.

Take the Harbor Soaring Society, a club for aviation enthusiasts and remote-control aircraft flyers. For more than 60 years, members have enjoyed the friendly skies at a model airplane flying field on Fairview’s west side.

Harbor Soaring Society member Ted Broberg explains flight controls at a 2019 open house event in Fairview Park.
Harbor Soaring Society member Ted Broberg explains the basic flight controls to a newcomer at a 2019 open house event in Fairview Park.
(Courtesy of the Harbor Soaring Society)

Flyers were displaced from the park in March 2020, when the city closed public facilities during the pandemic. And though Fairview has since reopened, the flying field remains closed as the city updates the site’s master plan and considers whether airplanes, gliders and drones are compatible with other park uses and priorities.

With its latest use agreement having expired in December, the Harbor Soaring Society has been looking to re-up the arrangement. Leaders recently put forth proposals suggesting tougher restrictions on operating hours and the types of craft allowed, creating a means of measuring noise and requiring flyers seeking city permits to undergo certification, among other plans.

Still, members of a Fairview Park Steering Committee in an April 14 meeting decided not to extend the club’s entitlement. They instead favored possibly relocating the flying field to the park’s east side, where the Orange County Model Engineers operate locomotives on a miniature railway under a separate use agreement.

Cynthia D’Agosta, administrator of Fairview Park, said the move would reduce the impact of remote-control flyers on vernal pools and other wildlife-rich areas located on the west side, an area identified for future restoration.

A coyote hunts rodents on the fields at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa on Thursday, March 4, 2021.
A coyote hunts rodents at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa on March 4. City officials have recently shifted their focus from recreational uses to restoration at the 208-acre site.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“There’s been action to change direction of management of the park over time,” D’Agosta said, describing a shift away from recreational uses toward protection of open space. “So, we’re going to update the master plan to have more of a focus on restoration and biological management.”

City staff will revise the plan to reflect the changing priorities, previously codified in Measure AA, an initiative passed by voters in 2016 that calls for any significant changes or additions at Fairview Park to be put to a citywide vote.

Pushing that process forward and considering the environmental impacts of relocating Harbor Soaring Society activities is a complicated process that could take from three to five years, D’Agosta estimated.

HSS President Mike Costello said Tuesday talk of relocation has members worried it’s only a matter of time before the club is completely pushed out of Fairview, the only park in Costa Mesa that allows flying.

A woman holds a glider during a Harbor Soaring Society open house in 2019.
The future of the Harbor Soaring Society is up in the air, as Costa Mesa officials consider relocating a flying field on Fairview Park’s west side to protect wildlife-rich areas.
(Courtesy of the Harbor Soaring Society)

“The steering committee wants us out,” he said. “They just keep stalling us and stalling us, and our membership declines as they put more restrictions on us. I’m going to guess by the end of the three-year evaluation process, they’re going to get rid of us.”

A longtime Costa Mesa resident, Costello enjoyed flying at Fairview in the 1970s and ‘80s and recently resumed his interest in 2016 after working two decades at Fountain Valley’s now-shuttered Hobby Shack.

He said Harbor Soaring Society’s 100-plus members run the gamut from retired aerospace engineers to kids interested in aviation and engineering. And while technology has progressed from simple gliders to electric-powered planes and even drones, most make sure to keep their park use respectful.

Still, there’s no accounting for novice flyers, or kids who just got a drone for their birthday and want to take it out without first learning the rules or seeking proper permits.

“We try to educate them, but enforcement is pretty hard,” Costello acknowledged.

Members of the Harbor Soaring Society at Costa Mesa's Fairview Park in 2020.
Members of the Harbor Soaring Society, seen here in 2020, have been using Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park for decades.
(Courtesy of the Harbor Soaring Society)

D’Agosta said complaints from residents and park users over the noise generated by the remote-controlled planes or reports of an occasional flyer venturing into a vernal pool to retrieve a downed craft have been stacking up over the years.

“Fairview is not your typical neighborhood park,” she added. “It is an open space nature area that has a lot of floral and faunal activity that is important for Orange County, so it’s got a lot of biological eyes on it, all the way up to the federal level.”

Local eyes are also watching. Members of the Fairview Park Alliance, a preservation advocacy group formed in 2015, drafted Measure AA to protect the open space from the impacts of recreational users and past city councils, which they say saw Fairview as a giant playground.

Member Kim Hendricks said there has been little oversight of the Harbor Soaring Society’s use of the park and claimed a lack of enforcement of rules and policies has put wildlife at risk.

An American Kestrel perches on a dried stalk of mustard at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa on March 4.
An American Kestrel perches on a dried stalk of mustard at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa on March 4. City staff and activists are committed to restoring wildlife areas at the 208-acre site.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

“The remote-control planes shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Hendricks said Tuesday. “They definitely negatively impact the birds and wildlife there. And for years the city had overlooked that.”

But now, it seems, someone is paying attention.

The city’s Parks, Arts and Community Services Commission will review the steering committee’s decision in a May 27 meeting before making its recommendation to the City Council. D’Agosta said council members could review the matter as early as June.

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6:22 p.m. April 21, 2021: This story has been updated to clarify that Harbor Soaring Society members do not operate aircraft with fuel-powered engines at Fairview Park.