Sunday, March 12, 2006
Master plan for airpark on hold as officials seek details
By Marc Beauchamp
The Redding (CA) Record Searchlight
How up-in-the-air is the future of Benton Airpark?
A draft master plan for Redding?s nearly 80-year-old aerodrome recently elicited queries from the City Council, drew fire from critics who want the airport closed because of noise and safety concerns and raised questions about the potential economic value of the 158-acre facility, off Placer Street west of downtown. The $150,000 master plan, prepared by the Coffman Associates consulting firm of Phoenix, and Kansas City, Mo., calls for modest growth at Benton over the next 20 to 25 years, construction of additional hangars and, most importantly, new safety areas at the ends of the 2,420-foot north-south runway to bring it into compliance with Federal Aviation Administration standards.
The city council, at its Jan. 17 meeting, put off a vote on the master plan. Instead, it asked Airport Manager Rod Dinger to “prepare a comprehensive report regarding Benton Airport to include a financial analysis, projected useful life expectancy, overcrowding, runway safety issues, regulation of aircraft noise and flight patterns, impact of moving a portion or all operations to Redding Municipal Airport.”
Redding Municipal, in east Redding, opened in 1947, sprawls over 1,750 acres and boasts a 7,003-foot main runway and a 5,062-foot crosswind runway.
The questions of Dinger by Mayor Ken Murray and Councilman Mike Pohlmeyer encouraged airport critic Beth Norby. Benton, she said, is “an inadequate facility, its runway is too short and there?s been incredible encroachment from homes. It?s a huge liability for the city.”
Norby, an environmental planner by training, and her husband, Greg, lived north of the airport until noise and safety concerns prompted them to move a year ago to Sunset Terrace off Eureka Way.”I didn?t feel safe there,” she said.
Retired businessman Jim Griffin lives on a ridge overlooking Oregon Gulch about 2? miles southeast of Benton. California Highway Patrol helicopters operating at the airport, he said, have “buzzed my home as low as 250 feet,” prompting complaints to Dinger, the CHP, and state and federal aviation authorities.In recent months, he said, copters have kept to higher elevations and caused him less angst. But he reported a “flagrant flyover” late last week.
Griffin insists he?s not “anti-aviation.” He?s an Air Force veteran and former Western Airlines ramp agent. A model plane hangs from the ceiling of his living room; a coffee table book on military aircraft sits on a side table.
The two CHP choppers, one acquired after Sept. 11, 2001, with Homeland Security grant money, “should really be at Muni,” Griffin said.
Last year, Mercy Medical Center?s air ambulance service moved from Benton, a general aviation airfield, to Redding Municipal Airport, after the hospital turned the operation over to a private contractor.
The CHP operation at Benton ? consisting of two Eurocopter AS350 BE helicopters and two Cessna 206 aircraft ? employs about 20 people. It covers 13 northern California counties, providing surveillance, search and rescue and other services. (The CHP?s district office sits nearby, on Sonoma Street. )
CHP air teams also support local law enforcement agencies pursuing vehicles or fugitives fleeing on foot. “They?re a great asset for us,” Chief Leonard Moty said. “They?re our eyes in the sky. It?s something we could never afford on our own.”
Benton is home to some 125 planes, overwhelmingly single-engine aircraft stored in hangars. Benton handled about 35,000 takeoffs and landings in 2001 (split evenly between local and “itinerant” aircraft), a figure expected to grow to more than 47,000 by 2022.
Hillside Aviation Inc., the only commercial operation at the airport, has 24 employees, including three mechanics and three flight instructors, said owner Karl Alam, a former electrical engineer from Orange County who bought the operation a year ago and has a 20-year lease with the city. Alam and his wife, Nina, also own the Airpark Cafe.
Benton generates $12 million a year in direct and indirect economic benefits to the Redding area, according to a study in the draft master plan. The airport?s annual operating budget is around $600,000, Dinger said. Last year it reported income of around $100,000 to the city?s airport program.
The airport has an admirable safety record, Dinger said. “I have been here for 15 years and we have had four accidents at Benton (and) no serious injuries or fatalities. The last one was in 1995.” All involved aircraft not being able to stop on the runway and rolling down the embankment, Dinger said.
A proposed $3 million runway enhancement program would provide more room at the ends of the runway for planes that run into trouble on takeoff or landing.
“It?s not an expansion of the runway,” Dinger notes, “it?s a safety area.” The length of the runway would stay the same.
Closing Benton, as critics like Norby want, would be expensive, according to the draft master plan. “One fallacy is that airport closure can be a simple process,” the report said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The city would have to buy out leases, forgo lease income and might even have to give back federal monies received for airport improvements.
Benton?s elevation (719 feet above sea level) is an advantage over Redding Municipal (502 feet) on “maybe three or four” foggy days a year when the larger airport doesn?t have good enough visibility for planes to land, Dinger said.
As west Redding developed, housing and offices encroached on the airport, opened in 1929 and dedicated to Lt. John Benton, a Shasta County native and aviation pioneer who died on a goodwill flight in South America.
St. Joseph?s Church and Elementary School sit across the street from Benton. Manzanita Elementary School lies to the northwest. Medical buildings have sprouted to the east. Busy Placer Street is 570 feet north of the runway.
At current land prices, Benton?s 158 acres would be worth millions to the city, if sold and developed. Realtor and developer Rob Middleton estimates the city could reap between $10 million and $15 million on the sale of the land and between $6 million and $9 million from permit fees development would generate.[Editor’s Note: No, there is no end to the greed of developers] In addition, he said, there would be sales taxes on construction materials and additional property tax revenue from houses, offices and retail buildings where hangars and tarmac now sit.
Benton is a “gold mine for the city to develop and sell,” Norby said. “Benton?s days are numbered. If the city wanted to finance a horse park, sell Benton,” she said.
Benton Airpark, however, doesn?t seem to be a priority for Mayor Murray. “It?s an amenity, like a park,” Murray said last week. “The city is in the amenity-providing business.”
Looking to the future, he said, “It?s possible that in the next 20 to 30 years it could become totally outmoded. Whenever that happens, like any amenity, it will have to be replaced. But it?s not something I?m working on, thinking about or losing any sleep over.”