Merced, CA. – Supervisors Override Ban on Building Near Airports

Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Supervisors override ban on building near airports
Decision seen as benefit to proposed motorsports park adjacent to Castle
By Corinne Reilly
The Merced (CA) Sun-Star

The Merced County Board of Supervisors issued a preliminary decision Tuesday to override a 2003 finding that plans for the Riverside Motorsports Park conflict with land use rules at Castle Airport. The Airport Land Use Commission ruled three years ago that plans to build the 1,200-acre motorsports venue adjacent to the airport conflict with the county’s 1999 Airport Land Use Plan. Specifically, raceway plans conflict with a safety zone rule that bans development within 10,000 feet of an airport runway. Questions over the legitimacy of the commission’s finding were raised when the county’s Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development began updating Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center’s master plan four months ago to reflect new state guidelines on land use near airports.

Under the new state guidelines — on which local airport land use plans are often heavily based — development is only banned within 6,000 feet of runways.

By that standard, the conflict between raceway plans and airport rules would be eliminated, said John Fowler, the county’s director of commerce, aviation and economic development.

“The problem is that the local plan is inconsistent with the state of California’s plan,” Fowler told the board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Airport Land Use Commission chair Tony Whitehurst, who didn’t speak at the meeting, said Tuesday that the commission hasn’t updated its land use plan because of financial reasons. But, he said, “if we had an updated plan, there’s a good chance that inconsistency (between raceway plans and the land use plan) would go away.”

Whitehurst said the commission hopes to update its plan soon to reflect the changes in state guidelines — changes that are already being incorporated into Castle Airport’s master plan.

While a vote against overriding the commission’s 2003 decision could have halted raceway plans, Tuesday’s unanimous vote doesn’t mean an end to the debate.

The board’s decision kicks off a 45-day comment period during which local, state and federal aviation agencies can give their input on whether the raceway’s proximity to Castle poses a risk.

The county’s Airport Land Use Commission, the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics and the Federal Aviation Administration will likely weigh in on the issue.

“It’s really just a way for us to open this up for further review,” Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said. “We need to find out what all the various agencies think about putting a raceway near an airport.”

Three local residents spoke during a public comment period before the board’s vote — one against overriding the commission’s ruling, and two in favor of the override.

“I could think of no two things that are more compatible,” Ray Beverly, a professional pilot who said he frequently uses Castle Airport, said in reference to the airport and the raceway.

Beverly, who said he was asked by raceway supporters to speak at the meeting, added that he believes the raceway’s location, lighting and operations won’t affect the airport.

Raceway CEO John Condren said the board made the right decision.

“They did the right thing based on state law,” Condren said. “Today’s vote puts us in position to get the override ruling we need.”

Condren recently came out in strong support of Castle Airport’s bid to host passenger air service.

n August, Condren wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging the agency to award Castle a federal subsidy to fund passenger flights.

Perhaps the most controversial project in local history, the motorsports park is proposed to cover 1,200 acres just northeast of Castle Airport. It’s set to include eight racing venues and 14 separate tracks.

The $230 million project is expected to draw as many as 50,000 people on designated weekends.

If approved, the park is expected to open in 2008.

While the Airport Land Use Commission — which oversees airports in Turlock, Gustine, Merced and Los Banos — has no authority to approve or deny projects such as the raceway, commission rulings can weigh heavily in project decisions by the Board of Supervisors.

The board is scheduled to make its final decision to approve or deny plans for the raceway on Dec. 12.

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