Thursday, February 24, 2005
Safety, setbacks and struggles distress airport advisory group
By CONNIE KORBEL
The Mendocino (CA) Beacon
Important Little River Airport projects, approved and with funds available, remain stalled and continue to jeopardize pilot and community safety due to essential staff cutbacks in the county transportation department. At the Feb. 14 meeting of the Little River Airport Advisory Committee (LRAAC), the same issues appear on the agenda from more than a year ago, with progress made at a pace so slow that accomplishments are nearly indistinguishable from then to now. Despite the unmistakable patience of the committee and a clear understanding and appreciation for what the county staff is up against, serious ongoing concerns are confronted with some frustration.
In yet another attempt to get matters moving forward a little faster, the LRAAC agreed to send a letter to Mendocino Countys Public Resources Committee to agendize two specific airport topics Department of Transportation (DOT) projects and airport incursions and an opportunity to raise the overall level of awareness.
The letter acknowledges the departments cooperation and hard work, but points out that budget constraints have sharply curtailed DOT work on approved airport projects. LRAAC is requesting time to make a presentation with substantial time for discussion, to result in board action on approved and deferred Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) projects that will either allocate more staff or raise the priority of the projects; hopefully, both.
After years of discussions and meetings, a global positioning system, or GPS, instrument approach for Little River Airport was approved in 1998. Progress has been in small, slow steps.
Over a year ago, at the January 2004 committee meeting, it was reported that money was available for removing obstacles for a GPS approach. The FAA requires a state safety officer conduct an on-site survey, so the least number of trees are cut. Tom Peters, county DOT engineer, said his department had asked for funding so a vegetation management plan could be drawn up using department staff, but the necessary funds were not approved.
At the March 2004 meeting, Peters reported that he and Dan Gargas, a Caltrans Aeronautic Division safety inspector, had met at the airport and identified the trees needing topping or removal for runway safety and GPS approach. Peters said then, If all the necessary trees are taken care of, GPS landing may be possible at LRA by the end of the year, according to FAA.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act, obstructions to airport safety can be categorically exempt for NEPA and excluded for CEQA, but they are a part of the approval process, as well. The airport committee wants to be cautious and sensitive, but bottom clear cuts are appropriate actions within these two acts when there are safety issues.
A year ago, LRAAC Chair Tim Scully said, What were talking about is selective cutting. Somewhere between clear-cut and environmentally-aesthetically right and leaving trees to reseed. Some clear cutting close to the runway [is needed] as those trees grew fast. We want to do this cutting as painlessly as possible to the neighbors and to the environment.
Then, at the June meeting, Scully said the Los Angeles FAA office is anxious to get GPS moving, but is waiting for a Burlingame district safety officer to review a plan that was, as yet, not prepared. Scully characterized the progress as microscopic steps.
Plan approval and implementation come in two steps that include the approach being tested for use, checking for obstructions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also does an obstructions survey. Then, finally, the county DOT prepares a maintenance plan.
Then in October, the FAA complained about the trees being hazardous to the Visual Approach Slope Indicator, or VASI, which is owned and operated by the FAA and is inspected every two months. They demanded the trees be removed or the airport would be decommissioned a tough situation, since it can be difficult to get recommissioned. VASI makes landings safer by warning pilots when they are above or below landing glide path, especially important during night flying.
Airport Manager Dave Thorpe then signed a request to have the Department of Forestry cut the trees. The work was completed just before the inspector returned. Finally satisfied, the inspector said had they not been cut, he would have had to take action.
Following the October meeting, Scully sent a letter to Peters of county transportation asking for the status on their projects and inquired whether he was coming to the November meeting.
Peters did attend the November meeting and apologized for his two-month absence, citing an intense construction schedule. He reported that the biological assessment, the first stage of the vegetation management plan, was completed with dirty results, meaning there are rare plants on the airport property, but that safety issues take precedence over environmental concerns. He said the next step was to prepare a NEPA categorical exemption or environmental assessment.
Giving the committee an approximate timeline, Peters discussed the CEQA process for qualifying for $15,000 in state matching funds. To prepare the documents and make them available for the 30-day public review, he anticipated a total time of 60 days and was hopeful to start vegetation removal in spring.
Peters also explained that in 2003, 40 percent of his time was on airport (Little River and Round Valley) projects, but this year  much less due to budget cuts causing staff shortages.
To make matters tougher, there is a new process for FAA grant applications. They now require the completion of design and bidding before applying. This wont impact current grants, but does affect all CIP projects, by substantially increasing county staff time.
Also faltering on the project track is the construction of 16 county-owned hangars, approved four years ago. Pilots then each made $600 cash deposits, with the understanding that deposits were refundable, if hangar construction didnt commence within two years of making the deposit.
Caltrans required the advance commitments as a way to confirm the financial viability of constructing the new hangars. Caltrans offers the airport low-interest rates for the construction project. At that time the rate was 1 percent; now it is at 3 percent and rising.
Over a year ago, the committee reviewed a draft prepared by Peters for the hangars project. He said staff time had to be allocated to the project, as there is no money for a consultant to cost out a budget. DOT has made progress on hangar specifications, but this, too, stands stalled for lack of enough county attention.
Last March the hangars project was reported to be, moving slowly at Caltrans.
County DOT Engineer Stephen Ford was present at the June meeting. In that discussion Ford indicated that insurance would be high for overhead rolling doors and difficult to maintain. Scully pointed out the same potential problems with sliding doors in windy situations. Ford reported they have the specs completed and next were the engineer drawings.
During a telephone discussion this week, Scully estimated the hangar project, which now has about 100 pages of documentation, and hasnt been touched in months, needs another two to three solid weeks of engineering time to complete. Until this stage of the project is finished, they are unable to procure the construction bids required by Caltrans another lengthy process. Its now late February and the matter of the hangar project remains essentially where it was a year ago.
Committee member Trey Loy told Ford last year, We are looking for methods to proceed. When committee member Cheryl Quist, concerned about losing the grant money, asked Ford about the deadlines for using grant funds, he said there were no real deadlines, maybe two to three years on getting started.
Three years ago Little River Airport became eligible and obtained a $150,000 annual federal grant, which has now rolled over a total of $450,000 for CIP projects Four approved projects an Automated Weather Observation System, security fencing, an overlay of the runway and taxi way to preserve the pavement, and replacement of the runway lighting system will now likely be deferred, because there still isnt allocated staff for them.
As for the airport property incursions and the lack of enforcement against trespassers, the LRAAC wants an approved policy the Sheriffs department can use to disperse illegal assemblies, with guidelines on when to arrest and to prosecute those involved. Airport Manager Thorpe conveyed their reluctance to respond to calls without a clear policy for handling complaints.
The letter states, Now there is a mixture of teenagers and older people who have made the airport their playground. They ride motorcycles and off-road vehicles by developing their own unauthorized access roads and paths.
Sometimes people trespass on the airport in pickup trucks and park near the runway to drink at night. Then they smash large numbers of empty bottles by throwing them into the runway. The broken glass is a real danger to landing aircraft.
When the airport supervisor approaches these trespassers, their typical response is, There are several of us and one of you, what are you going to do about it?
The letter indicates the committee strongly supports increasing efforts to block runway access by implementing the CIP security fencing project, as soon as possible, and placing better No Trespassing and Warning Federal Offense signage around the perimeter.
On Jan. 9. numerous shots were fired on airport property. Two abandoned cars were discovered smashed with large amounts of garbage dumped where bonfires and disturbances have been taking place. On Feb. 2 a parent refused to take his children, who were riding bicycles, off the airports active runway, or to leave when ordered to by the airport supervisor.