Cloverdale airport’s future before City Council

December 5, 2015

The fate of the Cloverdale Airport is up in the air as city officials grapple with whether to grant a developer’s demand to close it in order to accommodate a proposed $200 million resort next door.

Closing an airfield involves a lengthy federal application process with an uncertain outcome, but developers of the 254-acre Alexander Valley Resort say they are willing to foot the bill, as well as pay for more than $7 million in improvements to repurpose the airport into a sports park.

Laulima Development LLC officials, who are planning an equestrian center, say that horses and airplanes aren’t a good mix, nor will low-flying aircraft be appreciated by the guests and residents of the high-end resort and homes that would be built nearby.

The City Council on Tuesday is expected to signal a direction, if not vote outright, on whether to embark on the process of applying to the Federal Aviation Administration to close down the half-century-old facility.

“My sense is the vote could go that way,” Mayor Bob Cox said Friday of the likelihood he and his colleagues could decide to try to have the airport closed following a public hearing on the topic that begins at 5:30 p.m.

But he also cautioned that even if the City Council unanimously moves to shut down the airport, the FAA “could still say ‘no.’ ”

Any effort by the city to close the Cloverdale Airport is expected to be challenged by aviation groups, and perhaps some of the tenants there.

There are 17 airplanes based there, according to the most recent count. There are more than 20 tenants at the airport — including aircraft owners and two businesses, one of them a skydiving operation.

A number of organizations, including the Aircraft Owners Pilot Association, already have indicated their willingness to bring legal action to keep the airport open.

“They are completely against the possibility of closing the airport,” Michael Morrissey, Cloverdale Airport manager, said Friday.

The effort to close the airport and transform it into a sports complex, with soccer, baseball fields and other amenities, has buoyed the hopes of airport critics already upset over noise from planes connected to the local skydiving operation.

The possibility has also excited residents who are eager to see more recreational opportunities in Cloverdale that might include team sports, as well as potential walking trails and a park for dogs and skateboarding.

But airport defenders say the 58-acre facility is more than just a launching pad for hobby fliers and has served as a base for medical evacuations, firefighting, business flights and a fog-free alternative when the airports in Santa Rosa and Ukiah are socked in.

Federal hurdles

FAA approval to close airports has historically been limited, according to an aviation attorney hired to consult for the city.

“Normally, such approval has been because of a new replacement being built,” consultant Henry Nanjo said.

Nanjo said in a report that there has been a large number of very small general aviation airports that closed down as growing cities encroached upon them.

Most were small private airports without FAA support, including some in Santa Rosa and adjoining areas, but many closed in the 1960s, he said. A few private airports have been closed as recently as the 1990s, according to Nanjo.

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But general aviation airports like Cloverdale, which have accepted federal improvement grants, are a different story.

“There are so many hurdles in order to accomplish it,” Morrissey said. “I think the odds are very slim. One that recently closed literally took an act of Congress.”

Developers’ pitch

The developers recognized that closing an airport is difficult, but said it is not impossible.

“We firmly believe that a very large majority of the citizens of the city support the closure,” said David Bouquillon, president of Laulima Development.

In a letter to city officials, he said his firm is willing to spend $500,000, most of which would go to pay an aviation consultant who worked with the city of St. Clair,. Mo., to shut down its municipal airport.

He said Cloverdale will benefit in myriad ways by repurposing the airport for other uses, such as a sports park.

If the airport were to close, the city would likely have to pay back some of the grants it has received for airport improvements, totaling as much as $1.2 million.

There also is a potential for increased airport maintenance costs during the years it takes to close the facility.

Laulima has expressed a willingness to reimburse the airport grants, but the city also wants the developer to pay any of the legal costs as a result of anticipated lawsuits by those wanting to keep the airport open.

City Manager Paul Cayler expressed concern about the complex process for closing an airport with no set time frame and only a few examples of successful airport closures.

If council members decide to move to close it, he urged them to do so “with the objective that financial and legal risk is borne substantially by Laulima,” he said in his written report.

Importance of facility

Nanjo, the expert in aviation law hired by the city, noted that the FAA and the federal government view airports as more than just a regional or local facility, “but a national treasure or asset and a part of the national robust aviation network.”

“Due to the importance that is placed on airports, a request to close an airport is a major undertaking,” said Nanjo, who added they are linked to critical national objectives including defense, emergency readiness, law enforcement and postal delivery.

Airports also are seen as a safety net in the event of airplanes’ needing to be diverted due to mechanical problems or other emergencies. Another consideration that the FAA will weigh is the effect the closure will have on surrounding airports, such as those in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa.

The process, Nanjo said, will require a significant investment and thorough analysis, akin to an environmental impact report costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Nanjo said the city must follow the FAA’s procedures for closing an airport.

“Perhaps the most challenging aspect of an attempt to close an airport is that the FAA has the sole discretion to allow closure through this process and has no particular timeline by which they have to make their decision,” he concluded in his report.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or [email protected]. On Twitter @clarkmas.