Airport Makes Strange Bedfellows

Sunday, June 13, 2004
Airport Makes Strange Bedfellows
The Contra Costa County (CA) Times

WHEN YOU’VE SWUM three-quarters of the way across a pond full of alligators, there’s nowhere to go except forward.

That’s why Contra Costa Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier has little political choice but to proceed against the tide of angry pilots and dueling developers with his idea to relocate the county airport and transform the old runways into a transit village. If the self-proclaimed smart-growth warrior buckles, critics will label him a hypocrite who stomps on sprawl with one foot and spurns in-fill with the other.

“The representative for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association asked me, ‘Hey, it looks like you’re in a bind. How do we help you out?'” DeSaulnier says. “But I can’t get weak-kneed now. If you believe that we can’t continue to build on the edge, then you have to promote in-fill.”

DeSaulnier admits he miscalculated the level of support for Buchanan, which even some high-ranking Concord officials privately dismiss as a Popsicle stand for hobby pilots.

As it turns out, there’s profit in Popsicles.

Powerful real estate developer Albert D. Seeno Jr. considers Buchanan a key amenity for the 1 million square feet of office space he owns in central Contra Costa.

The specter of relocation clouds Buchanan’s future and dampens Seeno’s economic prospects for the next 10 years, says Seeno attorney Rick Norris.

In an attempt to squash the idea like a bug on the windshield of his corporate jet, Seeno took his ire to Washington, D.C., where he scored a meeting and a strongly worded letter from House Transportation Committee Chairman and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

Young threatened in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration to strip the county of the airport if it doesn’t stop this nonsense.

The legality of the threat notwithstanding, this was no small feat. It takes juice to get face time with a committee chairman, let alone a letter.

Why would a guy from Alaska, who runs a major congressional committee, spend even one minute worrying about Contra Costa’s airport?

This is the same lawmaker, after all, who has repeatedly blocked the Bay Area’s push for federal permission to spend local bridge toll money on voter-endorsed bus and ferry service.

This is the same committee renowned for its “ABC” philosophy, also known as “Anywhere But California.”

To start, Seeno’s Washington lobbyist is George Miller IV, son of Rep. George Miller, D Martinez, and a close friend of Young’s. (It must be nice to have friends. Young’s staff never returned the Times’ phone calls.)

But Miller IV says Young is an aviation advocate, particularly for urban airports where the spread of homes and offices encroaches on aviation operations.

Plus, the California-born lawmaker lives in a village in the Arctic Circle, when he’s not ensconced in his Washington-area digs. “Alaskans know the value of air travel,” Miller IV says.

Seeno also called upon Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo. (Yes, Seeno’s a Republican, but he’s also pragmatic. He has paid Tauscher $8,800 in campaign donations since 1997 and recently hosted a fund-raiser for her at his Clayton estate.)

Tauscher, who lists both DeSaulnier and Seeno as supporters, hit one down the middle: Go ahead and study the idea, but any new airport must be in Central County and it must open before Buchanan closes.

And Rep. George Miller agrees with Tauscher. (Seeno hasn’t given him any money.)

What happens next?

After a year as “That guy who wants to close Buchanan,” DeSaulnier won a vote this week from his colleagues to launch the request for proposals process in mid-July.

Then we’ll find out who will win the influence battle: Seeno or builders like Shapell and Lennar, who are salivating over the prospect of 500 acres of prime real estate in a red-hot housing market.