Stockton Airport – Proposed Schools Too Close

By Greg Kane
Record Staff Writer
March 21, 2007 6:00 AM

STOCKTON – Stockton Metropolitan Airport’s director criticized a plan Tuesday to build two schools less than a mile from the airport’s main runway, stoking an ongoing debate about whether to allow development in the area. The Manteca Unified School District proposed the new elementary/middle schools to stem growing class sizes. The significance of the proposal has increased with the potential loss of French Camp Elementary, which officials fear is a hazard because of its proximity to railroad tracks.

But Airport Director Barry Rondinella told San Joaquin County supervisors Tuesday that building so close to the runway would pose an entirely new safety risk from low-flying planes and helicopters.

Rondinella’s presentation was intended to sway the board into signing a letter to the California Department of Transportation – which reviews plans for schools near freeways and airports – opposing the project. Supervisors balked at the idea, however, voting 4-1 instead to allow Rondinella to oppose the project on behalf of the airport alone.

The board became gun-shy about lending its name to the letter after representatives of the Arnaiz Development Co. and a former air-traffic controller at the airport raised doubts about claims of how low and often planes fly over the proposed school sites. Arnaiz is the builder of Tidewater Crossing, a controversial 2,100-home community proposed just southeast of the airport.

Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, echoing concerns from several other supervisors, said the board did not have the expertise to sift through technical discussions of flight patterns and plane types to judge which statements were accurate.

“What we know about aeronautics is how to fold a paper airplane and throw it,” Ornellas said.

One of the two schools is for students from French Camp Elementary, which could be closed if a pending study shows danger from the railroad tracks near the campus. The other would be for the wave of new students expected if the Tidewater project is built, said Sandy Dwyer, an administrator with the school district.

Without new schools, parents in French Camp might be forced to bus their children to schools in Weston Ranch, Manteca and other areas, Dwyer said.

Caltrans aeronautics investigators reviewed the plans last year and recommended to the state Board of Education that they be approved, paving the way for planning and construction. That approval has since been rescinded, because Caltrans failed to give airport officials a chance to weigh in on the projects, Rondinella said. A new ruling is expected in the next few months.

Although Tuesday’s hearing was limited to the proposed schools, the Tidewater project was referenced often. The board has opposed Tidewater and other development near the airport, voting last year to create a 2-mile buffer preventing such growth.

Friction between Rondinella and Tidewater supporters was evident throughout the hearing. Matt Arnaiz, the development company’s president, called Rondinella’s letter a “blatant attempt to use mischief” to prevent the schools from being built.

Fred Allen, the owner of Stockton-based Sierra Jet and a former air-traffic controller at the airport, also raised questions about several claims, including that planes would pass only 500 feet above the school sites and that large military aircraft frequent the airport. Rondinella maintained during and after the hearing that the letter was entirely accurate, however, and noted that one of Allen’s clients is the development company’s owner, Howard Arnaiz.

Editor’s Note:The Stockton Airport has a history with this developer and his tactics. Hopefully the San Joaquin County supervisors will see through them.

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