Elk Grove airport case headed to CA Supreme Court
When amateur pilot and flight instructor Kevin Cordes sold his house in 2006 for three times what he paid for it, he moved into something a little more spacious: an airplane hangar. He said he would’ve had a near-impossible time finding a vacant hangar at any other small airport, but the Sunset Skyranch Airport just outside Elk Grove’s city limits didn’t exactly have a flood of new tenants.
“Being that (the airport) is on the verge of disappearing … it’s a little bit easier to get a hangar there,” said Cordes, who is now president of the Sunset Skyranch Pilots Association.
The future of the airport, which started with a single dirt runway in the 1930s, has been uncertain since early 2006, when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted not to renew its use permit, citing encroaching urban development and Elk Grove Unified School District’s desire at the time to build an elementary school nearby.
The pilots at Sunset Skyranch organized, pooled their money, and sued.
Lanny Winberry, the pilots’ attorney, said in a phone interview if the county plans to ground traffic to and from the airport to make way for other development, the environmental impacts of that development must be studied.
County attorneys disagreed, and next month, the California Supreme Court will decide. In July 2008, a state appeals court sided with the pilots, saying an environmental study was required.
Last week, Cordes went before the Elk Grove City Council to ask that a letter be sent to the county requesting it place the push to close the airport on hold.
The airport is located in the area of Elk Grove’s proposed Sphere of Influence expansion, and if the expansion is approved, the city would have a say in the airport’s future.
Elk Grove Council Member Sophia Scherman, who was a part of the 2005 council that sent a letter to Sacramento County asking the proposed elementary school not be approved as long as the airport continues to operate, said a letter to Sacramento County now wouldn’t produce results.
“It would not be a very good idea – stepping on another agency’s toes,” Scherman said. “We have to just wait and see what the court says.”
Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli said in a phone interview he would be open to discussing Elk Grove’s future plans for the airport if the city expressed interest.
Danny Lang, a pilot who practices law in Oregon, owns the airport. He has promised to will the airport to Elk Grove if the city can keep it operating for 20 years after his death. Lang could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Disagreement remains over previous permit
For many years, the Sunset Skyranch Airport didn’t need a use permit from Sacramento County to operate. When it came before the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for a permit in 1999, it was given a five-year permit instead of the customary 10-year permit. Supervisors and county staff said in 2006 that the permit was given a shorter time span so that the level of urbanization around the airport could be re-evaluated once the permit was up for renewal.
Scherman and some supervisors said it was made clear that the airport would be shut down at the end of the five-year permit, but others disagree.
Nottoli, whose district includes Elk Grove and the airport, said at a 2006 meeting that the fate of the airport had not been predetermined.
“It was my view that it was not definitive as to what the outcome would be at the end of the five years,” he said at the meeting. “It left it open to question, and maybe that wasn’t such a good thing … because there’s dispute about that.”
Nottoli was the sole dissenting vote when the airport’s permit was not renewed. He said the decision was too abrupt, and the pilots should be given more time to look into alternatives.
In an Oct. 21 phone interview, Nottoli said it has since become more difficult to make the argument that airport stands in the way of immediate development.
“I do think the reality of such is that things just aren’t moving like they were in ’06,” he said, adding that there may be current concerns about noise from the airplanes.
He said if the county is required to perform an environmental analysis of the area, there will be an additional cost that will have to be considered by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
Supporters cite commerce benefits
In addition to trying to get the Elk Grove City Council behind his cause, Cordes has tried to build support for the airport by holding an open house and speaking to local high school students.
Cordes said he spoke to six different Elk Grove High School math classes about aviation and offered every student a free ride in his airplane.
Only one student from the classes called him. A second, from Monterey Trail High School, also asked for a ride.
“Maybe aviation isn’t cool to these kids,” Cordes said. “If I was a kid I would’ve jumped at it.”
Ed Rosiak, president of the California Pilots Association, said this situation isn’t unique to Sunset Skyranch. Small airports all over the country are under pressure from encroaching development, he said.
“The rest of the states are watching to see what’s going (to happen) here,” Rosiak said in a phone interview. “What people don’t get is airports aren’t playgrounds – they’re infrastructure.”
Pilot Bob Lessman, who has been at the Sunset Skyranch Airport for about 30 years, said the airport attracts business traffic.
“(The airport has) some pretty high-dollar airplanes flying in, hauling in architects, contractors … and people flying in from all over,” he said. “It’s not just a bunch of rich guys out there with their hobby.”