Sunday, September 5, 2004
Educators and aviators
Plan to build school near airport stirs controversy
By Charles Levin
The Ventura County (CA) Star
When Charles McLaughlin opened Aspen Helicopters at the Oxnard Airport 20 years ago, he never sweated takeoffs or landings. Vast swaths of farmland south of the aviation facility gave McLaughlin ample room to swoop in and land a helicopter without worrying about homes or schools below. Times have changed. Increased housing south of the airport has limited his options.
“Flight paths are getting squeezed and squeezed,” McLaughlin said recently over the clatter of a twin-engine Bell Long Ranger chopper.
At one time, the Oxnard Airport was “out in the boonies.” Today, it looks a lot different from 1,000 feet up, where McLaughlin often sees it. Housing, office parks and strip malls wrap around the 216-acre airport like a giant U-shaped maw ready to swallow it up.
Tentative plans by the Oxnard Elementary School District to build a school at the corner of Fifth Street and Patterson Road across from the airport might narrow McLaughlin’s choices even further. District trustees will consider the matter Wednesday.
The proposal also has rekindled a simmering controversy about the future of the 70-year-old airport.
Airport officials and other backers say the 8-acre school site is dangerous, putting children below a flight pattern. Trustees with the elementary district say they have few choices and agree with some city leaders that it’s time for the airport to relocate.
County airport director Scott Smith counters that relocation is impossible, citing a lack of available land and restrictions imposed on the airport by federal grants. Smith, McLaughlin and others stop short of saying putting the school there would force the airport to close. They’re quick to cite the airport’s economic benefit to the region.
Yet another underlying problem without a ready solution fuels the controversy: The city is growing faster than the district can provide classrooms. “It’s frustrating from our point because our growth continues,” said Francisco Dominguez, president of the district’s Board of Trustees.
Different world in 1934
Such problems didn’t exist when the airport opened in 1934 with a 3,500-foot dirt runway, two aircraft and no hangars. A hangar came later, built as a Depression-era work project. In the 1930s, Howard Hughes pitched a tent there to house an H-1 racing plane.
Today, a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control tower stares down over a nearly 6,000-foot runway. Commercial service is limited, with United Express offering five flights a day to and from Los Angeles International Airport.
In 1999, county officials floated plans to expand the aviation facility into a regional commercial hub, but the Board of Supervisors scuttled the idea after a community outcry. The airport’s future now lies in the burgeoning world of business aircraft, a more compatible use with the existing development there, Smith said.
Many airports around the country have suffered a similar fate: They start out in rural areas, then homes and strip malls gradually close in around them.
A turning point arrived in the 1980s, when the Oxnard City Council rejected a more compatible business park to the south, Mayor Manuel Lopez said. Lopez voted for the park, but conceded he has supported home building in that area ever since.
In July, a county airport advisory commission recommended the school district look elsewhere for a site. About 10 to 20 helicopters a day fly over the site at altitudes of roughly 500 feet. Smith, several pilots and a few airport employees assailed district trustees over the site selection at a public hearing last month.
They said aircraft noise could drown out teachers during emergencies, and warned about the possibility of an accident. “You’re inadvertently placing children in harm’s way,” said Mark Fingerlin, past chairman of the Oxnard Airport Association.
The state’s Department of Transportation has already backed the site, and school officials seem confident it will get the approval of two other state agencies.
Meanwhile, trustees appear poised Wednesday to override the airport commission’s recommendation. At the recent public hearing, Trustee Denis O’Leary suggested the helicopters should find a new flight pattern.
McLaughlin said that would be risky. The only option available would require helicopters to make a different approach and fly over the runway twice before landing, he said. “It increases the hazard of midair collisions,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin accused the city of allowing developers to build homes without any guarantees the school district can handle the increased number of students.
“Now the school district is desperately trying to catch up, and they’re compromising school locations over education,” he said.
Houses going up
About 5,000 dwellings have been built in Oxnard over the past six years, and 9,000 more are now in the planning pipeline or under construction. Meanwhile, the Oxnard School District, with 16,503 students, expects to add about 200 more annually for about five years, said Ed Diaz, assistant superintendent for business and fiscal services.
Diaz said those numbers could fluctuate, however, depending on what kind of housing — single-family homes or higher-density apartments — dominates the city’s growth.
Meanwhile, schools are already overcrowded and operate on a year-round schedule, putting a quarter of students on vacation for six weeks at any given time, thus creating more classroom space, Diaz said.
Smith said the district could have considered other sites for a new school. But there’s a dearth of available sites, Dominguez said.
In 2000, a community advisory commission offered a list of 30 possible school sites, said Marilyn Miller, the city’s environmental planning manager. Some are acceptable but most put children near hazardous conditions, such as flood zones, power and gas lines, environmental contamination and train crossings, she said.
Lopez and Dominguez concede the airport benefits the local economy but maintain the best solution is for it to relocate. “I think we need an airport, but I don’t think the location is compatible with the city,” Lopez said.
Smith said there’s no place to go, partly because most available land is protected by county growth-control laws. Also, the Federal Aviation Administration has given grants to the airport for improvements with the provision that it not relocate for 20 years. Every time the county takes FAA money, the clock starts ticking again. Right now, the facility is committed to the site until 2024, Smith said.
Use of Mugu unlikely
One possibility down the road, Smith said, is using runways at the Navy’s Point Mugu. The Navy turned down a similar request in 1993, and that answer hasn’t changed today, said Teri Reid, a base spokeswoman.
Base closures over the past decade have forced several air squadrons to relocate to Point Mugu, leaving little room for joint use, Reid said. Also, heightened security concerns since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks make a joint county-military venture unlikely, she said.
Allowing the school to be built won’t be the airport’s death knell, Smith said.
“The airport will remain open for years to come,” he said. But complaints will increase, and “we’ll spend a lot of time responding to complaints that we can’t do a lot about.”
Homes and businesses have crept closer to Oxnard Airport, top center, over the years. Now, Oxnard Elementary School District officials, citing a dearth of acceptable school sites in the city, have proposed building a campus south of the airport.
“Flight paths are getting squeezed and squeezed” as land around the Oxnard Airport is developed, according to Charles McLaughlin, owner of Aspen Helicopters.