Santa Paula Airport

Thursday, May 26, 2005
Airport Alliance Proposed
Santa Paula airfield and city officials are discussing sharing the facility’s ownership.
By Gregory W. Griggs
The Los Angeles (CA) Times

Santa Paula Airport officials, who have been forced to limit flights since winter storms crippled the facility’s only runway, met with the city’s top administrator this week to discuss shared ownership of the 75-year-old private airfield northeast of Ventura. Santa Paula Airport is one of the town’s largest employers. More than two dozen companies, with nearly 150 employees, depend on the airport, and some fear that if flights aren’t fully resumed, businesses may have to close or relocate.

The runway, which ran parallel to the Santa Clara River, was partially eroded in the storms earlier this year and had to be shortened, re-striped and angled inland. The runway’s shortening prompted Caltrans to restrict the airport to all planes except the nearly 300 based there.

“The airport has gone from about 150 landings a day to about five,” said Kurt Haukohl, of Caltrans’ Division of Aeronautics, who is working with Santa Paula. “It’s not a situation that we would want to have last a long time because it does directly affect the businesses there.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that Monday’s meeting was the first time the concept of shared ownership was formally broached, as the Santa Paula Airport Assn. looks for ways to pay for needed repairs. Though open to the public, the airport is privately owned and thus not eligible for most federal funding.

“Conceptually, if there is a way to be helpful, we would consider it,” Bobkiewicz said. “But we don’t have a lot of resources, and there are liability issues that we would have to work out first.”

The Santa Clara River tore through the bank beneath the 38-acre airport’s landing strip during several days of storms in late February. “It went right into the center line of our runway,” said Rowena Mason, president of the 103-member airport association, which owns the airfield land, as well as several hangars, and operates a fuel concession.

The airport, where actor Steve McQueen once used a hangar, was shut for about three weeks until floodwaters subsided and the association could arrange with the California Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, which issues its operating permit, to adjust the runway boundaries.

At its previous length of 2,650 feet, the 40-foot-wide runway was large enough to accommodate planes with a wingspan of up to 49 feet, said Austin Wiswell, chief of Caltrans’ Aeronautics Division. The runway is now about 2,200 feet in length.

Bobkiewicz and Mayor Mary Ann Krause met with Federal Aviation Administration officials in Washington, D.C., last week to explore whether funds may be available to repair the airport runway.

Krause said the FAA was trying to remove private airports that don’t meet current construction standards from its funding list and that Santa Paula might be expected to relocate some businesses farther from the runway to be considered.

FAA officials also suggested that the airport may be more likely to receive construction dollars if it were either owned or operated by a government agency.

“The best news I can give is that they didn’t say no,” Krause said.

Mason said the airport association was exploring various ways to share ownership with the city to satisfy the FAA without losing total control of the facility.

Ideas being considered include creating a special airport district or an arrangement where the city would buy the airfield for a nominal price and then contract with the association to operate it.

Before runway repairs can be made, the land that was washed away must be restored and fortified.

Soon after the flooding, Santa Paula and the airport association were able to secure two-thirds of a $6-million emergency grant from a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore the riverbank and to prevent future erosion, which benefits the airport and the low-lying rural community.

Progress on that project has been delayed by a dispute between a local agency, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District, and the California Department of Fish and Game, which argues that the county should conduct additional environmental study before dropping large boulders, known as riprap, beneath the fill dirt to maintain the integrity of the new riverbank.

The cost of completely protecting the riverbank through town has been estimated at more than $20 million, but Mason said putting asphalt down for a repaired runway would cost closer to $100,000.

The runway repairs can’t come soon enough for some airport tenants. CP Aviation, a flight school, moved its operation from Santa Paula to Oxnard Airport after flights were restricted.

Logsdon’s Restaurant, which lies just off the runway, was dependent on “fly-in business,” owner Bob Wagner said.

Weekday business is off about 30% these days, he said, adding that he has been forced to reduce hours for his eight full-time and 27 part-time employees.