San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

Monday, April 25, 2005
Airport agency tries to ease concerns over land-use plan
Local entities fear a loss of control
By Jeff Ristine
The San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune

When business leaders in Carlsbad read a document designed to promote sensible development and public safety around airports, they were alarmed. The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority proposal seemed to suggest that a school, shops and office development planned near McClellan Palomar Airport would violate new density guidelines.

More than 600 already approved homes would be unaffected, but to the Chamber of Commerce it appeared as if an economic boom from 2 million square feet of other construction was in danger. And it had two days to comment.

“It kind of throws a scare into people,” said chamber President Ted Owen about concerns the city was losing control over its land-use planning.

It was a common reaction as the authority’s Land Use Compatibility Plan began to circulate last month. But airport agency officials say the plan – and their ability to dictate land uses – have been misunderstood, and they’re planning to ask for additional time to clarify it.

They want to reinforce a point seemingly lost in a two-volume set of plans.

“We have absolutely no authority over existing land uses,” said Angela Shafer-Payne, vice president of strategic planning for the airport authority. “We are not changing the land-use designation under (property).”

And local jurisdictions will continue to control individual development proposals, she said.

Part of a review process for development near 16 public and military airports, the plan is designed to protect the public from excessive noise and safety hazards from arriving and departing aircraft. It is scheduled for a meeting of an airport committee today.

As the document went out for public review, the county Board of Supervisors threatened to sue. Chula Vista officials blasted their own representative on the airport board for what they viewed as a failure to protect their interests.

Shafer-Payne said the agency staff members want to extend the original June 30 deadline to enact the plan. In doing so, they’ll work toward consensus with airport operators and other governmental entities and probably reopen a public-comment period.

“It’s in our best interests to spend the amount of time necessary to work with the jurisdictions to come up with plans they’d be willing to accept,” Shafer-Payne said.

That means going over an inch-high stack of reactions from the public, she said, and going back through the plan airport by airport to calm fears of unreasonable restrictions.

The authority staff already has agreed to several changes in the plan to mollify critics.

But she emphasized: “We cannot implement any of these policies or compatibility zones. That is wholly up to the jurisdiction.”

State law requires compatibility plans to be developed for every civilian and military airport. The plans become part of a review process for development proposals and land-use designations, discouraging – to take an extreme example – construction just off the foot of a runway.

For some airports, the plans were out of date. Land uses surrounding Gillespie Field in El Cajon had not been reviewed since 1989; the guidelines for Brown Field in Otay Mesa were last updated in 1981.

The plan does seek to restrict zoning changes that would allow increased development in areas affected by noise and exposed to safety hazards. It protects airspace through height limitations and restrictions on visual distractions, including light.

When the agency began holding workshops to solicit public comment, criticism poured in.

Architect Kirk O’Brien turned to a chart in the plan, compared it to a map surrounding Lindbergh Field and saw a “completely outrageous” policy banning multifamily construction in Ocean Beach.

“It’s just incredible to me that they would be so audacious,” O’Brien said.

As more and more negative reaction rolled in, the authority extended a public-comment period.

It sent delegates to the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce and to the Carlsbad City Council to explain policies.

In Chula Vista, the staff agreed to reclassify Brown Field as an “urban” airport instead of “suburban,” making its land uses less restrictive and addressing fears that Coors Amphitheatre and Knott’s Soak City would not be allowed to expand.

And details to the plan for San Diego International Airport are likely to change so that policies in Little Italy take into account the dense residential and commercial development already there.

Shafer-Payne said the authority was working under a compressed time schedule and probably didn’t put enough effort into discussing the compatibility plan in the areas affected by it.

It may not have been clear to everyone, she said, that it’s still the local jurisdictions – the city councils and the county government – who have the most influence in development surrounding airports.

A city council can refuse to amend its general plan to meet the airport plan, she said, which would stop any projects from reaching the authority board.

Even development plans deemed not to comply with the airport agency’s work could go forward upon a two-thirds vote of the appropriate city or county jurisdiction.

Owen said he’s waiting to see a final draft of the plan before he would endorse it for Carlsbad. “We’re not as calm as we will be when we see it in writing,” he said

Shafer-Payne, meanwhile, is happy to credit the chamber for proposing changes that still meet the plan’s overall purpose.

“That in our mind was exactly how the process should work,” she said.

Board briefing today

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority staff will brief board members on the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan at a public meeting today at 10 a.m. on the third floor of the commuter terminal at San Diego International Airport, 3225 N. Harbor Drive.