Rancho Murieta Airport Sues Over Cutting Trees Near Runway

Friday, July 9, 2004
Rancho Murieta Airport sues over cutting trees near runway
By Walt Wiley
The Sacramento (CA) Bee

Owners of the Rancho Murieta airport have sued Sacramento County and Caltrans to get rid of some 50 trees growing beside the runway so that night operations can resume. Rancho Murieta in 2001 after years of wrangling over trees growing within the space that must be kept clear around airport runways for flight safety.

Airport officials have cut trees growing on their property, but they have balked at paying fees to gain permission to cut trees growing on neighboring park land owned by the county.

Now, Rancho Murieta Airport Inc. is petitioning for a court order making the county cut the trees and making Caltrans dismiss its action to curtail operations at the airport.

The action comes after the county Board of Supervisors last year directed county staff to take steps to get night operation reinstated at the airport. The county asked the airport for $26,850 for environmental studies. The airport did not pay, and now has filed suit. Parties in the case refuse to discuss the particulars.

The airport opened in 1970 as a service to the growing subdivision of luxury homes in eastern Sacramento County. There were no lights, and Caltrans officials noted the surrounding trees as a problem in the initial permit.

The adjacent land between the airport and the Cosumnes River became county park land in 1979. The late businessman Fred Anderson bought the airport and installed lights in 1982. He installed lighting that pilots could turn on by radio before taking off or landing.

The county approved the installation of the lights, and Caltrans granted permission for nighttime operation in 1990.

The trees came under occasional discussion until, in 2000, Caltrans limited nighttime use to airport tenants and local pilots, then in 2001 suspended the night operations permit altogether because the trees continued to grow.

In 2002 the airport cut some 20 trees on its property, and the continuing dispute is over trees on county land.

Rancho Murieta Airport is home to some 60 airplanes and four businesses, said Greg Dean, an airport employee.

Mike Maloney, a commercial pilot who keeps his plane on the field, said not being able to operate at night severely limits the airport’s usefulness.

“It’s bad now, but in the winter the days get so short it’s almost useless,” he said.

Caltrans’ part in the whole story stems from its duty of inspecting and issuing permits for the operation of all the state’s public airports.

“There’s 254 throughout the state, everything from LAX and SFO to little dirt strips in the desert,” said Gary Cathey, a senior aviation consultant for the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics.

Inspectors check lights, runway markings, wind socks and the like. The most important thing Caltrans watches for, he said, is obstructions on the “approach surfaces” and “transitional surfaces,” the very problems Rancho Murieta Airport is facing.

The surfaces are imaginary sloping surfaces 150 feet and more above the ground leading to and from the ends of the runway, and along the sides of the runway a short distance as well, where pilots can expect to maneuver safely.

A court date hasn’t been set in the case.

Night flights have been banned since 2001 at the Rancho Murieta Airport because the state Department of Transportation fears that trees growing on county land near the airstrip are a safety hazard.