San Diego- Brown Field-Runway Paved with Neglect

Sunday, September 25, 2005
Runway Paved with Neglect
Brown Field has deteriorated under San Diego’s ownership, and mistakes have been costly
By Jeff McDonald and David Hasemyer
The San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune

The terminal paint is peeling, the old observation deck rotting. Almost everything about Brown Field Municipal Airport reeks of age and neglect. It is a place that by almost every appearance time left far behind. But problems at Brown Field are more critical than bad paint and rotted timber. Mismanagement of the historic airfield in Otay Mesa is costing the city dearly in both money and jobs at a time when San Diego is facing the worst financial crisis in its history.

Since 2003, the city has paid or agreed to pay at least $6.5 million to settle lawsuits by disgruntled tenants and developers.

In the late 1990s, a New York entrepreneur wanted to assemble executive jets at the airfield and hire 400 people. He said the city all but ignored him. “They just didn’t seem interested,” said Bill Northrup, chairman of Century Aerospace. Two months ago, the city forfeited $1.8 million when it withdrew a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration for reasons even the FAA can’t fathom.

Federal regulators are so fed up with city leaders’ flouting rules established when San Diego took over the former Navy air station in 1962 that the FAA yanked Brown Field’s eligibility for new grants last month and placed it on a national list of negligent airports. The grants are essential because they pay for such things as runway upgrades, lighting and landing systems.

City airports director Tracy Means likened the suspension to “a fix-it ticket,” a remark that incensed federal officials. They warned that their next step may be to order the city to repay millions of dollars in past grants. Beyond that, they could seize the airport or give it to another organization to manage.

“This is serious,” said Donn Walker of the FAA’s Los Angeles office. “Anytime an airport is noncompliant, it couldn’t be more serious.”

The FAA considers Brown Field a vital link in the nation’s aviation network. The airfield relieves airport traffic at Lindbergh Field and is a key port of entry for flights from Mexico. It also supports search-and-rescue and border-security operations, is the first stop for air ambulances transporting Americans injured in Mexico and is the preferred landing strip among the corporate jet set.

The airport’s physical attributes are impressive.

At 900 acres, it is about 50 percent larger than Lindbergh Field. Its 8,000-foot runway, just 1,400 feet shorter than Lindbergh Field’s, can accommodate virtually any aircraft. It can’t be certified for large passenger jets because it lacks the appropriate equipment and security major airports must have.

Means said she doesn’t have specific figures on how much money Brown Field costs to operate or how much money it brings in; that’s because in recent years the city has combined that information with its other airport, Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa. In 2001, the last year figures are available for Brown Field, it brought in $1.2 million in rent and fees and cost about $1 million to operate.

The money the airports generate goes into an enterprise account, which can be used only for upkeep, operations and staff. So far, the enterprise account, supplemented by FAA grants, has kept them self-sufficient.

The airports don’t draw from or contribute to the city’s general fund. But Brown Field’s supporters say the city could profit from the airport if it encouraged greater use and attracted new businesses and jobs. They say it currently supports more than 200 jobs and generates tens of millions of dollars in economic activity in the region each year.

The city is in a quandary over the airport’s future.

To meet federal airport guidelines, the FAA says, the city must evict tenants that have nothing to do with flying – a hulking compost heap, wrecking yards, used car lots, a U.S. Border Patrol detention center. City officials can’t say precisely how many companies must go, because they don’t have a complete inventory of subleases.

The evictions would cost San Diego most of the money it receives from the airport because 85 percent of the rent collected at Brown Field comes from non-aviation businesses.

However, encouraging more aviation businesses would probably result in more air traffic and more noise and rile people who live and work on the hundreds of acres developed west of the airport in the past 10 years. Four years ago, residents and merchants defeated a proposal to convert Brown Field to a cargo airport, largely over the noise and congestion issue. Many want the airport closed and the land used for homes and other businesses.

William Griffith, director of the city’s Real Estate Assets Department, which ran Brown and Montgomery fields until July 1, said his office was stuck between an FAA intent on driving out non-aviation companies and a City Council reluctant to market the facility to the aviation industry.

“It’s been an untenable situation,” he said.

How did the promise and pride that surged when San Diego acquired Brown Field in 1962 deteriorate into a stew of angry tenants, costly litigation and reform-minded federal regulators?

Clues can be tracked over 43 years, almost from the day the city took possession of the airport.

Rich history

Originally known as East Field, the airport just 2 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border opened as an aerial gunnery and aerobatics school during World War I.

Otay Mesa was a perfect fit for the nation’s armed forces because it had lots of open space and was close to San Diego operations. In 1943 the airport was renamed Navy Auxiliary Air Station Brown Field in honor of Lt. Melville Brown, a naval aviator who died in a crash outside Descanso in 1936.

After the Korean War, the federal government declared the property surplus. Chula Vista bid for the land but lost out to San Diego.

Barely two years into San Diego’s ownership, Chula Vista leaders complained that their counterparts weren’t taking advantage of their newest asset.

“If we had acquired Brown Field, it would have been further developed than it is today,” Chula Vista chamber official Niek Slijk said in 1964. “San Diego is not paying enough attention to developing it.”

Today, dozens of fliers and other aviation leaseholders at Brown Field complain the city has deliberately made it hard for them to grow their businesses or lengthen leases.

Ron Schuler, who has operated an aircraft-maintenance company at Brown Field since 1989, cites example after example of proposals turned away by the city, including an aircraft refurbishing company and a firm that wanted to build upscale hangars for private jets.

“The city has been trying to stifle this airport out of existence for years,” he said. “They’d love to have this property for some other use.”

Larry Rothrock is a physicist who likes to build planes in his spare time. He and other members of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s San Diego chapter have leased 1.2 acres at Brown Field for more than 20 years. They hold open houses every weekend and offer free rides to children one Saturday a month.

For nine years, they have tried to extend their lease to upgrade the hangars and office. No proposal was good enough, Rothrock said, even though the club is a prime example of uses the government prefers at airports.

“We’re the poster boys for grass-roots organizations,” Rothrock said. “But every time things get going, eventually somebody throws a roadblock.”

Public records back up that claim. An April 12 letter from the FAA to airports director Means said “city policy is preventing the city Airports Division from seeking offers for tenancy at (Brown Field) from qualified prospects.”

Means and other officials say they are doing the best they can to balance FAA requirements and the wishes of the city manager and council members.

‘You lose face’

Dubious maintenance has been a longtime concern at Brown Field.

Worse than the uneven roads and aging hangars are the challenging landing conditions. The old runway is still sturdy, but it lacks some basic equipment.

There is no visual approach slope indicator system, or VASI, which allows pilots landing by sight to do so more safely.

Most troubling is that the primary lighting system is unreliable. The approach lights wink out every so often and the high beams can never be trusted. To avoid blackouts, the lights are used only at medium intensity.

Pilots such as Phil Kubeck, who flies for Air King charter service, divert to other airports whenever the runway lights are negated by bad weather.

“I’m not going to take a chance. If there is any kind of weather, then we will not make an approach,” he said.

Business owners suffer when pilots bypass Brown Field. Fuel isn’t pumped. Repairs aren’t made. Hangar and tie-down fees are lost.

“You not only lose business but you lose face,” said Tom Ricotta, general manager of Lancair, a jet-services company that shares the city terminal. “When the airport isn’t up to the standards expected by some of these corporations, they go somewhere else.

“The city has an important regional asset here. We want to see that asset utilized to its fullest potential and we want to do what we can to help the city reach that potential.”

Over the years, city officials have sporadically tried to breathe economic life into Brown Field.

A proposal in the early 1990s to create an international airport straddling the border between Tijuana and San Diego died because the binational negotiations were too complex. The failed plan cost millions of dollars in consultant reports and city staff time.

Another ambitious effort ended badly in late 2001, when the City Council rejected plans to convert the airport into a regional cargo hub that would have greatly increased air traffic. The 8-0 vote came after a seven-hour hearing that drew 1,000 people to the San Ysidro Multicultural Complex.

Griffith, the city real estate director, said the collapse of the cargo project was a huge setback for the city and the flying community. The cargo port developers projected the plan would bring $750 million a year into the region and create 11,500 permanent jobs.

The project was five years in the making, and it diverted attention from other businesses operating at the airport, Griffith said.

Attorney Pat Shea, who was hired to champion the cargo port plan, blames former Mayor Dick Murphy and the City Council for not appreciating what a thriving Brown Field could mean to the region.

“You’re dealing with people with short-term political horizons on long-term issues,” he said. “From the mayor on down, it’s easier to trade off the long-term benefit to the community for a short-term political benefit.”

Means tried to jump-start the airport three months after the cargo project was killed. She sent city leaders a wide-ranging plan that recommended renovating streets, buildings and other infrastructure and implementing a long-term business plan to promote development. Means got a meeting with Griffith, City Attorney Casey Gwinn and Councilman Ralph Inzunza, but the plan went nowhere.

“It got political,” Means said. “It never got docketed” on a City Council agenda.

Buzz Fink, who based his skydiving company at Brown Field for seven years, has had it with politics getting in the way. Fink moved his business a few miles away in 2000 but still chairs the Airport Advisory Committee.

“There’s simply a lack of leadership at the city when it comes to planning for the future of the airport,” he said.

Fink blames the City Council for historically deferring to the District 8 council representative rather than pursuing what is best for San Diego as a whole. That seat currently is vacant pending an election in November.

Inzunza, who represented the area until he was convicted of corruption and resigned in July, long sought to close the airport. In an October 2004 letter Means wrote to the FAA, she said Inzunza dismissed the federal rules requiring Brown Field to remain an airport as “poppycock.” He said he was not sure the property was best suited to aviation.

The former councilman declined an interview request.

Noncompliant business

The problem with Brown Field is that it has never had a powerful advocate, former city insiders said.

“Every time we’d go to the council to get something done, they’d say no,” said Frank Slater, an analyst who closed his 34-year career at City Hall in 2004. “They don’t care about aviation.”

David Estey, who worked as the city’s airport property agent through much of the 1990s, said the only thing that mattered to his bosses was making ends meet.

“They told me to make it so it wasn’t a drain on the city of San Diego,” he said.

To attract more aviation-related business would have meant preparing a long-range plan and plowing millions of dollars into improvements.

“There was so much political pressure not to develop that even if a plan had been put together it never would have gone anywhere,” Estey said. “It drove all the aviation tenants crazy. They didn’t know if they should put money into their business or walk away.”

Bill Northrup knew that feeling.

In 1998, the chairman of Century Aerospace proposed manufacturing airplane parts in the maquiladoras in Baja California, then assembling up to 50 executive jets a year in a 200,000-square-foot hangar he wanted to build at Brown Field.

The businessman projected the venture would create up to 400 blue-collar jobs and add tens of millions of dollars to the regional economy every year.

But city officials were knee-deep in the cargo-port project.

“The city didn’t particularly seem interested in having our business at Brown Field,” Northrup said. “So I just gave up.”

Griffith, who had just arrived at the Real Estate Assets Department, said Century Aerospace pitched a complicated, long-term lease that would have cost the city too much money up front. The jobs and revenue Northrup promised were shaky at best, he said, pointing out that Northrup is still searching for a site and has yet to build a single jet.

Despite its age and appearance, the airport remains a niche destination for private jets. The rich and famous avoid Lindbergh Field by using the South Bay landing strip, even though it has been the site of several accidents.

In 1991, a chartered jet carrying seven members of country singer Reba McEntire’s band crashed into nearby Otay Mountain soon after takeoff. Federal investigators placed most of the blame on pilot error, but also faulted an FAA employee for not warning the pilot that his planned route would fly him into the side of the mountain.

Ken Smith, who is 88 and is considered the unofficial mayor of Brown Field, says private jets shuttle wealthy Mexicans and Americans in and out every week. Last month, a Boeing 737 touched down with a rock band and its roadies and groupies.

Smith, who scoots across the tarmac on an adult-sized tricycle with a rusting basket in back, only shakes his head when he is asked about the airport.

“Even if you had half your brain sucked out, you’d know you’re not going to get another airport like this in San Diego County,” said Smith, a retired aviation technician who still flies his own plane. “There’s a power somewhere that wants this land.”

Courts and crackdowns

The city’s most recent warning from the FAA came in a letter dated Aug. 5, reporting Brown Field’s negligent status and its ineligibility for federal grants.

Airports director Means dismissed the letter, saying she’s confident the city will get rid of the nonconforming businesses and the place will bloom. She insisted the $1.8 million grant would come through as soon as November or December.

But the FAA told the Union-Tribune last week that Brown Field will receive no more grants until more aviation businesses are operating at the airport.

FAA officials also said they may ask the city to return some previous grants. Between 1979 and 2005, the agency gave San Diego $5.3 million to make modest improvements at Brown Field, the FAA said.

Means told a City Council committee last year that up to $14 million might have to be repaid, but in a recent interview she could not explain the discrepancy between her estimate and the FAA’s.

Means said the city is working on the FAA demands. So far, 28 non-aviation businesses have been forced to leave Brown Field.

Getting rid of some of those companies has been expensive.

Last November, the City Council approved a $5 million payout to Paladin Aviation, which provided fuel and other aviation services at Brown Field for more than 20 years. Paladin had entered into a number of subleases to boost its income and the FAA wanted those non-aviation companies evicted.

When San Diego served Paladin with a default notice in 2002, the company’s lawyers argued the city had encouraged the noncompliant businesses. Besides that, the attorneys said, the city never carried out its side of the lease agreement, which included improving roads, drainage, power systems, the runway approach and air-traffic control system.

According to Paladin’s lawsuit, the only thing the city did was replace some of the underground tanks.

To avoid a trial, the city bought a $3.4 million annuity that will pay Paladin Aviation $5 million over 26 years. So, for more than two decades, the company will receive $15,000 a month, about $10,000 more than it ever paid the city in monthly rent. The annuity was paid for with money from the airport enterprise fund, reducing the fund’s balance to about $5 million.

In 2003, the city agreed to pay Brown Field Aviation Partners, the developer of the failed cargo project, $1.5 million to settle a breach of contract lawsuit. A deputy city attorney said at the time the cost of going to court would have “greatly exceeded” the settlement figure.

More payouts are likely.

Brown Field Aviation Ventures is finalizing a still-confidential settlement with the city. And as non-aviation businesses are evicted, other settlements are possible.

San Diego City Manager Lamont Ewell, who is ultimately responsible for the airports, blames Brown Field’s problems on competing views of what should happen at the property.

“There seems to be a split between the community and many of the commercial businesses there who want to see different things occur,” Ewell said. “We’ve been caught in the middle.”

Ewell’s strategy is to wait for a winner in the District 8 council race, then solicit new development proposals. However, Ewell is leaving City Hall at the end of the year, when the city converts to a strong-mayor form of governance. Ultimate responsibility for the airport will fall to the new mayor.

“The broader question is what would the mayor and council like Brown Field to be?” he said.

Larry Gardner, the general services director who assumed oversight of the city’s airports July 1, would not say whether the city had neglected the airport or mismanaged its potential, nor did he offer solutions to the dilemma at Brown Field.

Instead, Gardner enthusiastically promised an improved Brown Field and offered this: “The proof will be in the pudding.”

Library researcher Peter Uribe contributed to this report.

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