Oakdale Runway Extension Controversy

Monday, August 2, 2004
Oakdale airport runway, eminent domain at issue again
The Modesto (CA) Bee OAKDALE — Every couple of months, the manager at the Oakdale airport seems to get a call asking the length of the tiny airport’s runway.

At 3,020 feet, the approach isn’t for everyone. An irrigation canal cuts across the path 200 feet from the end. In a twin-engine plane, or anything bigger, stopping “can be a problem,” airport manager Sherman Porter said.

“We have had an aircraft go off the runway and into the canal,” he said. “Also, at the other end of the runway, a man was killed and another badly burned in a home-built aircraft. They tried to make a touch and go and didn’t have enough room and went over the hill.

“So for safety reasons, we definitely need a longer runway,” Porter said. “And those were both single- engine airplanes.”

Larger aircraft, like Learjets, would be able to land for the first time with passengers and cargo under a $4.7 million expansion plan. The plan also would increase the safety margin, pilots say, for landing other aircraft.

Contested by landowners, the plan would expand the city-owned airport from 117 acres to 160, making space to extend the runway and taxiway 1,380 feet. It also calls for eventually adding room for more hangars.

Construction alone is gauged between $3 million and $3.5 million.

Tonight, the City Council is scheduled for a second time to discuss initiating eminent domain over 43 acres needed for the expansion. Discussion was delayed July 6 to give landowners more time to reach an agreement.

The proposal seeks slightly less land than it did originally. A neighboring bull ranch, JLG Enterprises Inc., will be pressed for about three acres instead of seven. The plan still calls for about 40 acres owned by Oakdale Commercial Feed Yards.

The expansion endeavor, detailed in a master plan developed eight years ago, is touted as a way of building interest in the airport owned by the city since 1960. More activity, officials say, could lift the money-losing airport out of the red.

Revenue from fuel sales and hangars adds up to about $160,000 a year. It costs $175,000 to $185,000 to run the airport.

So, the city spends about $15,000 to $25,000 on it each year, City Administrator Bruce Bannerman said.

“It hasn’t been able to pay for itself,” he said. “This kind of improvement, we think, will help it grow to pay for itself.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted $4.3 million for the project, Bannerman said. State and local money would make up the remainder.

Jack Lerch is part owner of JLG Enterprises, which opposes the plan. He said the expansion would largely benefit the major operator at the airport, and the sole owner of Learjets, Sierra Aviation.

“Nobody wants it. Nobody has a Learjet in Oakdale except one, Sierra Aviation,” Lerch said. “Oakdale is a nice, rural, quiet area. Modesto, by air, is only a couple of minutes, and it can’t be far to Stockton.”

Sierra Aviation, primarily a cargo business based in Oakdale since 1998, has about 10 airplanes based there, Bannerman said. It is not the only operator that will benefit, he added. At least two other pilots basing planes at the airport could also fly in more easily.

“This notion that this runway expansion is being done just for (Sierra Aviation) is factually incorrect,” Bannerman said, noting the master plan was done two years before the company’s move to Oakdale. “And the need and the desire had been discussed for a decade before that. So this predates them by many, many years.”

Developer Bruce Boese uses his seven-seat, twin-engine Beechcraft to bring people to Oakdale properties.

“With a larger runway, you have a much greater margin for safety,” he said, calling the expansion “an excellent idea.”

“It is going to enable many more aircraft to use the airport, and that would also encourage people to build and keep the airplanes here,” he said, describing partial ownership of private jets “the newest trend in aviation travel.”

“It would provide additional fuel sales for the city and additional revenue. They could get additional revenue for the airport from parking and hangars. It’s definitely a benefit for the city and for the business community.”