Agua Dulce Airport- Continues Fight to Stay Open

Saturday, December 3, 2005
Residents remain divided on airpark
By LISA WAHLA HOWARD
The Antelope Vally (CA) Valley Press

AGUA DULCE – County planning commissioners, initially asked to consider
revoking Agua Dulce Airpark’s operating permit, now have received draft
conditions that could open the small airport to noisier planes and acrobatic flying.

A public hearing on the proposed new conditions, released Thursday, is set for Dec. 14 before the L.A. County’s Regional Planning Commission in downtown Los Angeles.

An opinion from County Counsel concluded that, because of federal laws governing the airspace, the county is preempted from making certain restrictions on the airport. Restrictions contained in the airport’s current operating permit, and other conditions requested by airpark neighbors who oppose its expansion, are a no-go because the FAA’s rules supersede local government regulations.

“We make it clear, this is what we can enforce and this is what we can’t,” said Samuel Dea, the county planner who wrote the conditions. Regarding certain restrictions on the airspace, Dea said, “We can’t touch it.”

The airpark’s Special Permit 1404, originally issued in 1959 and subsequently modified, allowed for light twin-engine airplanes, with “heavier aircraft not to exceed 15% of annual flight ops and no flight ops for aircraft over 30,000 pounds.”

Airport opponents wanted to see the ban extended to turbo-prop planes and jets; they also complained about planes engaging in acrobatic flying, which is banned under 1404.

But Lawrence L. Hafetz, a principal deputy county counsel, in a letter to commissioners, listed numerous conditions he believes the county cannot make because of federal preemption.

Included in the list are flight curfews, flight bans over residential areas, prohibitions on flights below a specific altitude, bans on acrobatic flying, restrictions on the number of flights and restricting the airport to propeller-driven aircraft.

Donn Walker, an FAA spokesman, agreed that local governments cannot regulate the airspace. But private airports – those that haven’t received any FAA funding for improvements – can put their own restrictions on the types of aircraft allowed to land on the airstrip.

“Most of the airports in the United States are private, and they can say who can or can’t land there,” Walker said.

Mark Armbruster, a consultant to Agua Dulce Airpark owner Wayne Spears, said early Friday he hadn’t discussed the draft conditions with Spears, but “I don’t believe he envisions jets on (the airstrip).”

“His vision for the airport, since he is a local resident of Agua Dulce for many, many years, is to see the airport run as a local airport, and he is not interested in a lot a of the peripheral activities that (former owner) Barry Kirshner was interested in,” Armbruster said.

“A lot of the special events, soccer, all these types of things – it’s an airport, and Mr. Spears wants to run it as an airport, to serve the local community.”

“He has no desire for acrobatic flying,” Armbruster added.

The proposed new conditions also would call for the airpark to indemnify the county if any lawsuits are filed related to the airpark; the condition is common in permits issued now, but was not part of the 1959 permit.

“We didn’t want to make it favorable to opponents or proponents, but we left a lot of room for the commission to work with,” Dea said. “These are only our recommendations to the commission. They can make changes.”

Airpark opponents are gearing up for a fight should the planning commission approve the new conditions.

Justine Turner said she believes the county should lapse the operating permit now that County Counsel states several conditions are invalid because of a provision that reads: “It is hereby declared to be the intent that if any provision of this permit is held or declared to be invalid the permit shall be void and the privileges granted hereunder shall lapse.”

“They refuse to protect the community and do what the permit says, that if the conditions are found invalid, they have to lapse it,” said Turner, who said she moved to Agua Dulce in 1992 when the airpark was considered closed.

She and other opponents contend that a recent court decision concerning an airport in Naples, Fla., counters the notion that local governments can make no restrictions on the airspace.

In a federal appellate court decision in June, the court ruled a local airport authority’s ban on a type of noisy jet was justified because “its residents and visitors have an expectation of quiet throughout virtually the entire community.”

Turner said she also believes that allowing jets at the airport should trigger a review under the California Environmental Quality Act because jets are noisier than the planes common at the airport now.

Park Overall, another airpark opponent, said she was “stunned” when she read through the draft conditions.

“I’ve read it over twice, and I’m still picking my chin off the floor,” said Overall, who says pilots fly low over her home, frightening her animals.

“It (will be) completely unregulated and dangerous and takes an agrarian community and turns it into ADX,” Overall said, making a comparison to Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX.

County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich called for a revocation/modification hearing in August 2004 after receiving complaints about low, dangerous and acrobatic flying and unpermitted construction at the facility.

“Antonovich, when he called for the revocation hearing, he stated it was because of all the complaints he was getting from neighbors, and here they are making it way worse than it ever has been,” Turner said.

“They want to use a revocation/modification hearing process to rewrite a new permit that has huge environmental impacts.”

Kirshner characterized the complainers as a vocal minority.

The issue has sharply divided the rural town and been a contentious issue in recent Town Council elections.

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