Wednesday, August 31, 2005
Residents decry plans to expand Kern airport
BY SARAH RUBY
The Bakersfield (CA) Californian
Kern airport officials can’t save the barn. They’ve tried, said Airports Director Ray Bishop, but expansion plans at Kern Valley Airport can’t be maneuvered around Gary Sheetz’s barn. The barn isn’t the only thing that has Lake Isabella-area residents ready to secede. They are upset by what they see as a county ploy to seize land and make Kern Valley Airport a bustling hub.
Kern airport officials are meeting with residents tonight, hoping a scaled-down version of their expansion plan will be enough to make peace. They’ve trimmed their $17.6 million project down to $7.6 million, and its major elements — a new taxiway and a bigger runway — are meant to improve safety at the windy airport, Bishop said.
“If I can save one pilot’s life, it’s been a worthy project,” Bishop said. “We’re doing everything we can to figure out clever ways to do the absolute minimum (improvements).”
The short, uneven runway has contributed to five accidents since 1984, he said.
But some locals say pilot error is a more likely safety hazard than the runway. Kern Valley Airport doesn’t need these improvements; it’s a chance to grab funds being dangled by federal aviation officials, they say.
“If you build a runway they will come,” said Carla Thorn, a Kernville-area resident and business owner opposed to expansion. “We just feel like the more they do, the more they’re going to take.”
If the county gets its way, it will widen the runway and extend it by 750 feet to reach 4,250 feet. It will also build a new taxiway on the east side of the runway, where it runs into the historic Wofford Ranch, which is owned and operated by Sheetz.
“We would rather keep (the ranch) intact,” Sheetz said when asked about the 3.3 acres the county wants to purchase, and the 1.1-acre barn site it wants to tweak.
The barn is too tall, Bishop said. It cuts into a buffer zone. If the county moves forward with the taxiway, it will need to relocate the barn away from the airport, or buy the land outright and tear it down.
The 3.3 acres must be acquired, and Bishop said he hopes to avoid eminent domain.
For now, Sheetz will “take it one step at a time” with the county, he said.
The expansion plan is a 20-year sketch of how the airport should grow. Even if county supervisors approve it in late September, Bishop still has to complete environmental studies and apply for federal aviation grant money.
“It’s just a plan,” Bishop said. “It changes all the time.”