Airport expansion debated, delayed

The city’s Airport Commission, missing two of its members, met Tuesday night to hear a slew of arguments both for and against a proposed airport master plan that calls for lengthening both runways and possibly rerouting nearby Mud Creek.

The proposed expansion of the main runway seemed to be the main worry of nearby residents, many of whom questioned the need for lengthening the strip. If the main runway were lengthened, it would involve changing the course of Mud Creek, which is home to several runs of Chinook salmon as well as other threatened fish species. Since the creek is dry in the summertime, noted one city consultant, there is a possibility that the work can be accomplished with minimal disruption to the fish.

Other concerns included increased noise, traffic and lighting as well as impacts to endangered species. But one neighbor said she was most concerned about the area’s residents.

“It seems to me that so much thought has gone into the creatures that will be affected by this project,” area resident Mary Hendricks told the commissioners, “but very little thought has been given to the humans in this area. You’re talking about putting a runway right in the middle of a living, breathing neighborhood. We have our life savings in our homes. How are you going to mitigate the drop in our property values?”

One speaker, who had a different point of view, said he had been watching the televised hearing from home and was so “infuriated” that he rushed over to City Hall to address the commission. He said he was worried that, without the expansion, the California Department of Forestry planes that now operate from Chico Municipal Airport might choose a different base of operations, leaving the ridge more vulnerable to wildfires.

The current master plan for the airport was completed in 1978, when Chico was much smaller and less densely populated. The new airport plan seeks to address the growth of the region and the changes in aviation that have occurred since then. It supposedly would be current for another 15 to 20 years.

The issue before the commission boils down to how the airport will be used. Proponents of the proposed plan say increased development in the area means this may be the last time to extend the runway, which would both accommodate bigger planes and allow for safer take-offs and landings for the planes currently using the airport. The recommended option in the proposal calls for expanding the main runway to a length of 8,300 feet while increasing the length of the secondary runway to 6,000 feet.

Commissioner Michael Moran seemed to hint that the main runway might be lengthened only to a point just before Mud Creek, but that idea was called into question by Reiner Bailey, who drew up the expansion plan. Bailey said that the current safety margin of the runway already ran close to the creek, meaning that any extension of the main runway would involve either moving the creek or installing an underground culvert.

In the end, the commission voted to carry the issue over to Dec. 9, since it was lacking one member due to illness and another due to a conflict of interest on the issue.