McClellan-Palomar Airport

Sunday, September 5, 2004
County plans McClellan-Palomar Airport overhaul
The North County (CA) Times

CARLSBAD —- In the next five years, San Diego County officials want to transform McClellan-Palomar Airport from a rustic, disorganized collection of buildings into a sleek, modern facility. The first sign of the proposed, multimillion-dollar overhaul is a new, long-term parking lot, which opened last week. Next comes a new fuel station opening this winter, a stormwater drainage project now in the design phase, and a new tie-down area for small airplanes scheduled to open in 2006.

Far off in the future: a new terminal and runway improvements. Some of the county’s projects are beginning, others still need grant funding to proceed.

“We’re trying to organize and modernize,” said Peter Drinkwater, director of the county’s airport system. “That’s what this is all about … to bring us into the 21st century.”

By all accounts, today’s airport is still very much in the last century.

Below the surface

Commercial passengers arriving at the airport collect their baggage in a one-room, aging portable building that functions as the main terminal. Departing passengers struggle to find parking in the jumble of tiny lots nearby. A security guard watches over the scene, attempting to keep visitors separate from the collection of small, privately owned planes parked near terminal.

“We’ve been lucky that some little kid hasn’t run into an (airplane) prop,” Drinkwater said.

The explanation of how things became this way isn’t a happy one —- essentially, no one did much planning —- Palomar’s long-time airport director Floyd Best said.

The county acquired the property 46 years ago when Interstate 5 wiped out the old site near Del Mar. At the time, the area around Palomar Airport Road was so undeveloped that “the only other structure for miles was the power plant,” Best said.

The county used the hillside canyons around the runway as trash dumps. As each canyon filled with garbage, it was paved over and added to the airport’s available land. What seemed like a great idea has turned out to be terrible, Best and Drinkwater said.

Much of the 255-acre airport site contains the runway, the taxiways and a safety zone. Of the remaining 65 acres, only 20 can be built on because of environmental concerns about the trash heaps lurking below the surface, Best said.

Meanwhile, housing developments and business parks have surrounded the property.

“There is no place to go from here — we’re completely landlocked,” Best said.

Making changes

Because of the shortage of space at the site, the first step in any airport remodeling project involves some complicated shuffling to get existing operations out of the bulldozers’ way, then move them back after the work is done.

A prime example of that is the controversial, $30 million plan to rework the airport’s midsection where small planes and a few 40-year-old hangars sit.

Private developer Palomar Airport Center, which leases the 15-acre site from the county, wants to build 230,000 square feet of hanger space —- five large hangars and nine small ones —- as well as a 20,000-square-foot conference center and 173,000 square feet of office space.

It’s the type of project county officials say has been long sought at the airport —- modern, glass-fronted offices and high-tech hangars for corporate jets.

In order to make way for the upgrade, dozens of small, privately owned planes have been kicked off the airport or shifted to temporary tie-down spots. Angry pilots have filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration fighting their eviction.

The pilots have been told they can come back when the work is done in early 2006, but that the rental rates at the new units will be far higher than what they’ve been paying. There’s other land at the airport where the small planes could go, but they will have to wait for it.

Trying to fit in

The site where the county wants to put the small planes —- a long strip just north of the runway —- is also the location of a stormwater basin project, Drinkwater said. The county first needs to build the underground portions of the stormwater project, then start on the plane tie-downs.

“This is the house that Jack built, everything is connected to everything else,” Drinkwater joked.

As that project concludes, plans call for the county to add a new apron —- an area where planes can turn —- at the northwest end of the airport site. Next comes building a replacement for the main terminal building.

In addition to those projects, the county is working on construction associated with several leaseholders’ projects. Several county-funded taxiway projects will improve access to the proposed Palomar Airport Center structures as well as buildings that JetSource Charter is constructing, Drinkwater said.

An official with JetSource said her company had no one available last week to talk about the company’s now-under-construction project. County officials said JetSource’s plans include new hangars and a fuel station.

JetSource’s neighbor to the west —- Magellan Aviation —- also has construction plans. The company, which leases 16 acres from the county, wants to put several hangars and possibly some office space on a vacant, nearly two-acre strip on the edge of its site, said Robert Levine, company aviation division manager.

If things go as expected, that project could be under way in the next two years, he added.

County officials hope all the projects can transform the airport into something that fits in the prosperous town of Carlsbad, Drinkwater said. The new 250-space parking lot is the first sign of what’s to come, he said.

“This is the first baby step we’re taking to bring this airport into some system of organized use,” he said.

Peter Drinkwater, Director of County Airports Department of Public Works for the County of San Diego, points out changes that will be make at Palomar Airport.