Up in the air
Plans to expand Chico’s airport make pilots happy, neighbors nervous
A 1962 Cessna 172 is just big enough to hold three grown men—two in the front and one in the tiny back seat. Still, the plane climbs easily enough to an altitude of about 2,000 feet, where we bank to circle the Chico Municipal Airport.
Chico is beautiful from the sky, especially on this misty winter afternoon, the sun glinting off a dozen or so creeks and ponds, feeding heather-green vernal pools that spread out like moss abutting rocky, cow-grazed meadows and methodically planted orchards.
As we weave in and out of the airport’s traffic pattern, other little planes fly around us, entering our airspace from odd angles—beneath, above, aside. The cockpit radio feeds us their coordinates and we duck and dive accordingly.
I, in the back seat of what airport manager Bob Grierson refers to as his “Chevy Nova with wings,” am supposed to be looking out the window for encroaching residential development, for the site of a future industrial park on the airport’s west side, and for the spot where the main runway may one day intersect the present location of Mud Creek. Instead, I find myself nervously wondering how the lawnmower-sized engine in the front of the plane is able to keep us in the air, and what my last thoughts might be if the plane’s wings were to suddenly fall off.
The ashtrays in the back seat make me even more nervous, as they attest to the advancing age of the plane, but Grierson floats in for a perfect landing, and in a few seconds we are back on the ground, standing on the flightline of the tiny Chico Municipal Airport. The fact that the airport has been barely updated since the end of World War II is obvious. Old wooden hangars line the taxiways, which themselves are stained and patched over. The terminal building has no dedicated baggage handling or security area, no newsstand or concession shop. The parking lot is usually full. The estimated 1,500 tons of cargo a year that flies in and out of Chico has to be loaded and unloaded directly on the tarmac, rain or shine.
Still, the airport is and has always been a boon to the local economy. Aside from generating 250 jobs (1,200 more are employed at the adjacent industrial park), the airport contributes about $250,000 in taxes to the perennially-broke county every year. Business travelers, private pilots and cargo planes have the run of the place in the winter, while in the summer, firefighting planes take off on an almost daily basis to quench wildland fires on the ridge and elsewhere.
The airport, built as part of a Depression-era public works project, has never been an exciting subject to the average Chicoan. Even when it opened in 1935, the local paper buried its announcement of the event at the bottom of page one, beneath such items as “Fireworks, dance close exhibition,” and “Woman attempts suicide with lye.” Even today it might surprise many to learn that the airport may soon undergo a massive, $38 million transformation, one that has the potential to turn this backwoods airstrip into a modern air transport hub and industrial manufacturing facility that would be the envy of the north state. What’s more, the plan calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to pick up 90 percent of the tab for all approved projects, which include lengthening both runways, updating the terminal, building new hangars and constructing a 210-acre office/industrial park.
But as always, there is a catch: Not everyone wants more air traffic over Chico. Some don’t mind the air traffic but don’t like plans for an industrial park on the airport’s bucolic west side. Environmentalists, many of whom don’t think there’s much of a future in air travel to begin with, don’t like the plan to extend the airport’s runway because it would mean displacing nearby Mud Creek. At least two major developers are pushing hard for approval to build scores of houses to the west of the airport, directly beneath a major flight corridor. And existing airport neighbors are worried that the expansion will bring more noise, more traffic and lower property values for their homes.
The battle over land use around the airport goes back essentially to the years just after World War II, when the government, which had been using the strip as a training base for Air Force pilots, gave the airport back to the city of Chico (see sidebar, page 22). At that time, the airport was way out in the country, so nobody paid a lot of thought to planning for the growth that followed WWII. In 1961, the city officially adopted into its plan for the area the advice of the government’s Doolittle Commission, which recommended that airports be surrounded by light industrial and commercial development, sensibly keeping residential growth away from flight corridors. But in 1978, the city ignored its own plan and allowed infamous developer Dan Drake to place hundreds of new homes in a tract directly south of the runway. That decision, followed by sporadic turf battles between the city, the county and the state-mandated Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC), left the area a hodge-podge of country homes, isolated cul-de-sacs and a few patches of open land that are currently being drooled over by at least two large-scale homebuilders.
Paul Hendricks and John Oswald, two of the neighbors opposing the city’s plan to lengthen the airport’s main runway, said they don’t mind development of the area, be it in the form of houses, industrial parks or aircraft hangars. But they don’t understand why the airport needs longer runways.
"[The airport tenants] have been great neighbors,” Hendricks said. “Before we built our home out here we sat out here and watched the airplanes, got a feeling for the activities of the airport and the noise and things. We accept that—that’s what was here when we built our home. But what caught my eye is some of the forecasts that they’re using to justify the longer runway. I don’t see the justification for it.”
Hendricks and Osborn were interviewed by the side of the road where Mud Creek crosses under Hicks Lane. The spot is only a few feet outside the city limits, but is decidedly rural in character. Hicks has two broad lanes where it meets Eaton Road near Highway 99 but soon narrows into a potholed country byway, with no dividing line and barely enough room for two cars to pass each other. The road is flanked with gravel and dirt ditches which tend to flood in heavy rains. Behind the deadwood and barbed-wire fences that line the road is a tan and green pasture leading up to the airport, where a dozen or so cargo and firefighting planes sit waiting for their next flight. Mud Creek gurgles through the pasture and runs underneath an ancient concrete bridge, upon which a flattened skunk has been ground into pemmican by the fast-moving traffic. In the distance, a lone Cessna quietly buzzes down for a landing.
Oswald, a retired Aero-Union employee and avid bird watcher, looks out over the creek and spies some turkey vultures, but is disappointed that the bald eagle he has seen lurking in one of the nearby oaks is not around. Although neither Oswald nor Hendricks seems to be a fervent environmentalist, both say they are worried about the city’s plan to re-route the creek to make way for the longer main runway. They don’t believe the city Airport Commission when it says a longer runway would be safer to pilots and residents alike, and they don’t want those huge, firefighting tanker planes to be taking off any closer to their homes than they do now. In a nutshell, they said, the justification for expanding the airport’s runways is simply nonexistent.
“In their report they say the reason for the extension is to improve aircraft safety, yet in the last 20 years there has only been one incident that could even remotely be related to [runway size] and that was a small, single-engine plane,” Hendricks said.
He went on to dispute the Airport Master Plan almost line-by-line, saying that not one of the airport’s tenants have claimed to need a longer runway, either now or in the future; that new runways would not reduce noise impacts as the city claims it would; that Chico was too close to Sacramento to pick up extra traffic from other major airports (as some would clearly like it to), and that population growth estimates used in the Master Plan are overly optimistic. Hendricks even found fault with the orientation and scale of the maps provided in the plan.
“It’s all confusing,” he said. “You would think they could give us something that very clearly defines what they are doing, give us the backup data to justify it, so that any reasonable person could read it and understand what they’re doing.”
Hendricks and his neighbors (about 12 households in all) have been privately dismissed by some airport supporters as a bunch of not-in-my back-yarders whose nitpicking of the Master Plan is based on worry over their own property values. ALUC commissioner Bob Hennigan indicated that from a planning perspective, the homes Hendricks and his neighbors now live in (located to the north of runway under a main aircraft departure corridor) should probably never have been built. He said the runway extension, if approved, would mean more noise to those northern homeowners, but would also abate noise impacts for thousands of residents to the south of the airport.
Hendricks’ wife admitted to the city Airport Commission at a recent meeting that she and her neighbors were worried about the value of their properties, and at least one council member has privately acknowledged that he had little sympathy for someone who had built a home near the airport only to complain about airplane noise. But the Hendrickses do have one compelling argument: The Master Plan’s justification for expanding the airport’s runway is based partly on the optimistic assumption that someday a major air carrier will fly in and out of Chico. Since that is only likely to happen if the runway is extended, it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue, one that the plan does not really address. In fact, the plan’s justification for adding runway length is somewhat weak.
The study states:
“General aviation traffic… has shown little or no increase since 1980;” “It is difficult to forecast significant increases in [airport] operations;” and, “Even if the Chico Municipal Airport had better airline service, it is still considered that at least half of [Chico area air travelers] would opt to use the low fares and more frequent service offered at the Sacramento International Airport.” Not very convincing stuff in the Hendricks’ eyes.
The study also shows that flights and departures at the airport have actually fallen off by a factor of nearly 10,000 since 1980, while the county has added nearly 91,000 residents. Despite this trend, the study projects to add between 19,000 and 33,000 annual flight events in the next 20 years.
The plan goes on to predict that the number of passengers “enplaning” at the airport will almost quintuple from where it was 2001 (25,295) to 123,000 in 2008. But at the same time, it admits that previous forecasts have been way off when it states, “In the year 2000 there were [forecasted] to be 293 enplaned passengers per day… but there were only 90 passengers per day, indicating the effect of high fares and inadequate service.”
ALUC Commissioner and pilot Norm Rosene said the plan’s forecasts are very conservative, and perhaps understate the need for a longer runway.
“Aviation’s going to increase substantially,” he said. “Chico has a bright future but we can’t realize that if we don’t look far enough into the future.”
Airport Manager Robert Grierson believes the airport will be able to attract more air service—and thus more travelers—if the improvements in the master plan are realized.
“We have the population base and per capita revenue to support that kind of activity, it’s just that this is a down time in commercial air travel,” he said. “Before September 11, this airport was growing at over 18 percent per year. We far exceeded the national average.”
Airport supporters are trying to avoid taking the absurd-sounding position that somehow, Osama bin Laden is to blame for the decline in air traffic flying through Chico. But there is a direct relationship between 9/11 and the airport’s presently failing finances. United Airlines, currently the only carrier in town via its subcontractor, Skywest, used the 9/11 attack as a pretext for declaring bankruptcy. In doing so, the company cut service in and out of Chico in half—from six trips to only three trips a day, with the only destination available being San Francisco. With service like that, it’s no wonder that more than half of all travelers in the airport’s vicinity currently drive to Sacramento to “enplane” themselves, where flights are cheaper and exponentially more plentiful.
Grierson has some choice things to say about the way airlines are run, but due to the fact that he has been working for two years to try and bring in another carrier, he tempered his criticism and tried to strike an optimistic note.
“I think [attracting another air carrier] is feasible. We have the numbers. I’ve got a grant from the Transportation Department to develop a plan. The key thing is to get the master plan through the process first, and then I can start going after the air service. The big question I hear from a lot of [potential new carriers] is what’s the size of your runway? Any plans to expand it? I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, we do have a plan to expand it.'”
Although the runway extension is only one small part of the Master Plan, it seems to be the one project singled out for controversy. Besides the complaints of northern neighbors, environmental issues have also come into play.
In order to accomplish the extension, the plan calls for rerouting 3,000 feet of nearby Mud Creek. While the airport commission maintains that the creek contains no “critical habitat,” and has even suggested that re-routing it will actually create more habitat for the critters and plants that call it home, the Butte Environmental Council sees it differently.
“This section of Mud Creek has some very high-quality habitat, not only for your typical creek species but for some of the endangered creek species,” including juvenile Chinook Salmon, said BEC member Jim Brobeck. “They will be destroying that existing 3,000 foot section of existing vegetation—vegetation that would take 50 years to re-grow to its current state.”
Brobeck said there has been little organized outcry over the plan because Mud Creek is inaccessible to most people, and thus people don’t know what is being tampered with.
The creek is dry for about four months out of the year, so the re-routing plan calls for digging out a new creek bed during the summer and then using the dirt from that trench to fill in the old creek. The runway itself could be extended to the recommended length of 8,600 feet without actually crossing Mud Creek, but new FAA regulations require a 1,000 feet safety zone at either end of the runway. Originally, planners wanted to extend the runway to the south, which would avoid Mud Creek, but they couldn’t do so without negatively affecting the federally-protected vernal pools there.
Opponents of the plan say the present runway, at 6,700 feet, is plenty long enough for the planes that now use the Chico Airport. The Master Plan says basically the same thing. But the pilots that fly firefighting aircraft for the CDF might disagree. According to Hennigan, who flies a single-engine turbo-prop for the Bureau of Land Management, some of the larger firefighting planes that operate from Chico can barely get off the ground.
“They’re just barely clearing the phone wires along Cohasset Road,” he said. “If they have an engine failure on takeoff, there might not be enough room to stop.”
Grierson said a tanker pilot did recently lose engine power on a takeoff attempt, and though the pilot was able to stop, it took “every inch of that runway.”
CDF Battalion Chief Steve Iverson, who oversees Chico tanker flights, stressed that the present length of the runway does allow for the safe operation of firefighting planes. But a longer runway would be safer.
“How great a safety margin do you need? Well, I would say more than we have now,” he said. “If anything happens on takeoff that would compromise the ability to fly safely, you want to have adequate distance to stop before you run out of runway. With some of our planes, we don’t.”
Driving much of the issue is the belief of many airport boosters that, if the airport isn’t brought up to date now, it probably never will be. ALUC’s Rosene noted that there is only so much land near the airport to go around.
“If you don’t set the actual footprint of the Chico Airport then residential encroachment is going to stop you in the future,” Rosene said. “This conflict is going on all around California right now. Several hundred airports in this country have been closed because of residential pressure.”
The prospects of the airport actually closing seem remote. Fears held by some Ridge residents that CDF will pack up and leave if the expansion is not approved are also unfounded, Iverson said. But one thing that isn’t widely known is that the airport is in financial trouble, and has been since United cut flight service. Grierson said the facility, which strives to be self-sufficient and operates without city funding, needs about another $140,000 per year to remain viable. Having another air carrier could double the number of commercial passengers traveling from the airport, and usage fees and leasing arrangements from the proposed industrial park would make a big financial difference as well.
“I’d like to say extending the runway will increase my revenue—it won’t, but it gives me the ability to bring in aircraft that could increase the revenue of the airport. Right now, the size of the runway limits us to basically just prop[-driven] planes,” he said. “If I could get one larger aircraft to fly in here every month and buy fuel, that’s a substantial extra increase in revenue, and that’ll affect virtually every business here.”
The decision to adopt the Master Plan and final Environmental Review for the airport expansion rests with the city council. On Feb. 10, the council will get an earful from the public and set a date to make a decision. How the council will decide is anybody’s guess—airport supporters are displaying only the most cautious optimism. Even with neighbors and environmentalists on the warpath, it will be tough for the council to turn down millions of free federal dollars for a project that almost certainly would increase local revenues. But come Feb. 10, there will be plenty of people on hand to try and convince the council to do just that.