Santa Paula Airport Businesses Limping Along

Sunday, April 17, 2005
Airport business slows in S. Paula
By Kathleen Wilson
The Ventura County (CA) Star

Just a half-dozen planes buzz into and out of the eerily quiet Santa Paula Airport each day, a fraction of the number that touched down before the Santa Clara River ate into the runway two months ago. Airport shops are limping along with fewer customers. Volunteers are taking over duties from paid employees even if that means mowing the lawn. The flight school has moved to Oxnard.

With the historic airfield’s 75th anniversary looming in August, backers aren’t sure when the airport will get its 2,650-foot runway back. Planes based there can still fly in and out on a shortened runway, but the field remains closed to the general public.

Business owners said they’re hanging on for now but don’t know what will happen in the long term.

“If I had to bet on the uncertainty, I’d be for sale right now,” said Kevin Barr, owner of Santa Paula Aircraft Painting.

The uncertainty grew last week when airport officials learned that the California Department of Fish and Game is insisting on a detailed environmental study for a rock barrier to be placed along the river bank.

Fish and Game officials say the rock protection is different from other aspects of the $4 million repair job approved for federal funding. They say it’s neither emergency work to head off immediate danger nor does it merely replace the earthen bank that existed before the Feb. 22 storm. Just pipe, wire and concrete rubble protected the bank before the rain-swollen river clawed into the bank.

“When it comes to rock protection, that’s a new aspect,” said Betty Courtney, environmental scientist for Fish and Game.

Courtney said the rock barrier must be studied under the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The state law requires rigorous study of changes to the environment and says any damages must be minimized.

Courtney said such a study would take several months, with 12 to 18 months hardly unusual.

She said the rock wall could harm endangered species, such as steelhead trout, and possibly hurt the habitat in which two species of endangered birds nest. She also questioned whether the rock wall would cause water to bounce off the bank by the airport onto the opposite bank, worsening erosion, but an engineer who studied the project discounted that.

“All the potential for erosion is still along the airport,” said Howard Chang, a civil engineer who has conducted research in river erosion.

Chang said that without the rock, a 100-year storm would destroy the entire runway. The February storm was not that serious, but, Chang said, a repeat would take out some portion of the runway.

Airport officials fear the delay can mean federal funds will disappear, leaving the field vulnerable to another wave of storms.

“To say all we should put back is dirt, we’re going to be back in the same boat next winter,” said Rowena Mason, president of the Santa Paula Airport Association, the group of hangar owners that owns the airport.

The airport is privately owned and does not qualify for most federal disaster funding. The project won a grant of $4 million from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Bill Ward, design staff leader in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s state office in Davis, said he expected to work out a solution.

“We’re going to get our biology folks communicating with Fish and Game,” he said. “It’s something we need to work through, which we will work through.”

Extensions are granted

He said the agency’s guidelines call for emergency work to be done in 220 days but that extensions are granted for good reason.

Kirk Norman, who is handling the project for the county Watershed Protection District, said the Natural Resources Conservation Service is using a federal environmental review process.

“We’re hopeful that will satisfy to a large extent some of the concerns of Fish and Game,” he said.

Courtney, though, doubted the federal review process would be sufficient.

The small airfield caters to recreational fliers and is perhaps best known for the Hollywood legends who have flown there, including Steve McQueen. Actor Kirk Douglas was riding in a helicopter that collided with a plane and crashed in 1991, killing two people.

It’s also known for vintage airplanes and the assortment of businesses that sell, repair, paint and maintain planes. Shops fill such niches as making airplane covers, towing banners, doing aviation photography and dropping cremated remains from the air. During disasters such as the 2003 wildfires, the field provides a staging area for firefighters.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimated that the economic damages would top $50 million if the work wasn’t done. The project involves digging a channel to divert the water away from the banks, replacing about 200 feet of land lost from the edge of the airfield, rebuilding the bank and lining the bank with rock.

Although few fliers have left the airport, Mason said, many pilots who flew in from other airports believe there’s no way to get their planes here. A ferrying service is available to bring them in, she said.

Fuel sales are down

Without those outside pilots and the loss of the flight school, fuel sales are down drastically. They normally average 12,000 to 16,000 gallons monthly but fell to less than 2,400 last month. The effect on the various airport businesses varies. One maintenance shop has seen business drop by 80 percent, while Logsdon Restaurant reports only a 3 percent drop.

The Santa Paula Airport Association borrowed more than $250,000 for the emergency work needed to stave off the river in February and is facing a bill of $60,000 to $200,000 to repave the tarmac.

Still, Mason isn’t panicking.

“We’re going to be here,” she said.

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Workers from Lowe Construction use a bulldozer to clear a channel in the
Santa Clara River bed near the Santa Paula Airport on Friday. The California
Department of Fish and Game is insisting on a detailed environmental study
for a rock barrier to be placed along the river bank.