Schools, Airports Don't Mix

Sunday, September 19, 2004
Schools, Airports Don’t Mix By Adriana van der Graaf
The Ventura County (CA) Star

Western Ventura County is a wonderful area to settle and to raise a family. Many share this opinion, as more and more families move into the Oxnard area. These families want the best for themselves and their children: a comfortable and affordable place to live, available work and good schools for their children. The Oxnard area definitely needs more schools to accommodate the families of a growing city. To meet this need, the Oxnard School District identified about 30 possible locations for school sites in 1999. After review with the California Department of Education, three of the sites were found to be acceptable. The other 27 sites were eliminated. Of these three sites, two are now schools. The third location is no longer available as a school site.

Several years later, in 2002, the district identified a need for a school in the southwest area of the district. The district reviewed the original listing of about 27 sites. Many of these sites were no longer available, and others were found by the district to be inappropriate due to environmental issues. The only sites remaining from this original listing were all located within the “Traffic Pattern Zone” for Oxnard Airport. Of these sites, the proposed site was assessed to be less “at risk” than the other sites. This evaluation was made because the site is not over-flown by aircraft in the landing pattern for the airport.

In addition, the principal entry points to the airport are on the north side of the airport, opposite the site (and from the east, when aircraft must fly a “straight-in” approach under Instrument Flight Rules). More importantly, a significant number of flights are on the south side of the runway adjacent to Fifth Street. These are usually repetitive “touch and go” flights for practice and proficiency.

This site and two others were reviewed by the Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics, the state agency that is responsible to review potential school sites that are located within two miles of an airport runway. In a letter to the California Department of Education about the site(s), it stated:

“We strongly recommend avoiding the construction of children’s schools in the three locations. In general, these locations should not be permitted unless no feasible alternative is available.”

The school district’s draft environmental impact report found that this location was the “most acceptable of the available sites.” The report further concluded that the project would not result in a significant risk factor, based upon accident probability calculations from an aircraft accident risk assessment conducted for the EIR of a previously approved housing project adjacent to the site.

The Oxnard Airport does have a very low accident rate, significantly less than the national rate. However, the potential consequences of an aircraft accident at an elementary school site would be significantly worse compared with other land uses. The argument could be made that an aircraft accident at any school site could be devastating. Therefore, why select a location where the possibility of such an accident is greater, even if the chance is not “statistically significant”?

Is that a possibility acceptable to a parent of a child attending the school? I certainly would be concerned about any children in my family attending this school. The Aviation Advisory Commission, made up of individuals with a high level of aviation experience, was nearly unanimous in its opinion that this is an inappropriate location for a school.

Another issue to question in the selection of this location is noise. Fixed-wing aircraft noise, although significant, can be mitigated with additional soundproofing in building construction. However, the helicopter noise generated by the estimated 10 to 20 flights per day will “create high levels of momentary noise.” Proper construction can certainly assist with noise control for the students within a school building, but low-flying helicopters are loud and, similar to the noise impacts of some business aircraft (Stage 2 jets), could provide a distraction to children inside the school as well as impact the outdoor school environment in athletic or play areas.

I work in a very large building with significant noise attenuation. There are at least eight to 10 helicopter over-flights and landings next to my building every day. The noise, while obviously within regulatory standards, is distracting. My colleagues, who are working adult professionals, all comment about it. Children are usually far more easily distracted, and I question whether the noise will affect their educational environment.

The best construction, however, does not address the noise impact of helicopters or Stage 2 jet aircraft on the outdoor school environment in athletic or play areas. Could this level of noise impact the ability of school staff to communicate with their charges in an emergency situation? Is this a chance that any parent would want to take?

The children of the Oxnard area have the right to attend a school that is located in an area that is safe and conducive to a high-quality education. The school district has an obligation to those children and their parents to thoughtfully select a location most conducive to safety and a focused environment consistent with the school district’s goals of high-quality education. P

It simply does not make sense to place an elementary school within 1,500 feet of a busy airport runway or under a helicopter flight path. Parents, children and teachers deserve better.

— Adriana van der Graaf, of Camarillo, is chairwoman of the Aviation Advisory Commission.