Collision course on airport

SAN MARTIN
– After months of meetings, a raucous community hearing before
hundreds of residents and a controversial review by the county’s
Airports Commission, the county’s proposal to allow 418 planes to
call San Martin’s rural airport home appears to be on a collision
course with area residents, who say th
e plans are inappropriate and in conflict with the county’s own
land-use policies.
SAN MARTIN – After months of meetings, a raucous community hearing before hundreds of residents and a controversial review by the county’s Airports Commission, the county’s proposal to allow 418 planes to call San Martin’s rural airport home appears to be on a collision course with area residents, who say the plans are inappropriate and in conflict with the county’s own land-use policies.

“The (Airports Commission) did not do its job,” said San Martin resident Barry Shiller during a recent discussion on the issue. “It still remains to be seen whether the Board of Supervisors will do their job.”

But although nothing’s set in stone, District 1 County Supervisor Don Gage said he’s looking forward to moving ahead in the months-long process.

“The (county) staff’s recommendation is just a recommendation, as is the planning committee’s and the Airport Commission’s,” Gage said. “We’ll look at them and determine what’s best for Santa Clara County. We may or may not modify it … there are a lot of things we could do.”

Supervisors are currently slated to review the draft county Airports Master Plan update – which sets 20-year growth limits at the county’s airports – and decide capacity at each airport during their afternoon hearing Tuesday.

Through the draft plan, county airports officials have recommended the San Martin airfield take the brunt of new growth in the three-airport system by allowing a maximum of 418 planes by 2022.

The San Martin airport currently has room for 178 planes, but the airports department also plans to build 100 new hangars there in the next year. Roughly 90 planes park at the airport now.

Meanwhile, officials proposed to essentially cap growth at San Jose’s Reid-Hillview airport, leaving room for only 24 more planes over the present-day actual capacity of 726 at the airport which is hemmed in by subdivisions and a major shopping mall.

Palo Alto’s airport is also slated for limited growth, taking on room for 23 more planes than current master plan levels dictate and 60 more than can be accommodated at today’s level of development.

Gage has said the recommendations for 418 planes at South County seem “fair” – growth he thinks will come gradually over many years’ time corresponding with other overall growth projected for South County and its economy.

“People are making assumptions that tomorrow there will be 418 airplanes there, and that’s not the truth,” Gage said. “If it grows at the rate it’s growing, they won’t reach that capacity until 20 years from now.

“You’re not going to see whatever people are suggesting there – it’s going to be over the next 20 years – and over those 20 years the projected growth rates are headed south in terms of industry and jobs.”

But San Martin residents – as well as some San Jose pilots – have disagreed the growth will be local-serving, saying county airports are shifting North County demand and potential quality-of-life impacts to South County through their recommendations. Residents say that defies both the county’s General Plan and the last plan drawn up in 1982 for the San Martin airport.

Just a service for North County?

For example, only 182 of roughly 2,000 registered aircraft owners in the county live in South County, notes San Martin resident Sylvia Hamilton.

“Anything above that means being impacted by North County demand,” she said.

County airports officials have justified the new recommended maximum capacity for South County Airport by comparing it the to original growth capacity limit set in the 1960s for the airport – roughly 550 planes. That makes 418 planes seems like a reduction in potential capacity for South County.

But that comparison that has incensed San Martin residents, who have criticized the county for using it and the Airports Commission for signing off on it.

In fact, residents argue, the county is actually increasing potential capacity because the airport’s 1982 master plan has provisions for just 300 planes. That plan also says South County Airport is not well-suited to adopt a reliever role for North County traffic.

County airports officials have since revised their report to explain that the 300-plane cap established in 1982 was not set in stone, but instead linked to changes in the number of individual takeoffs and landings per plane.

Planners shouldn’t have changed numbers

San Martin residents say those numbers have changed only slightly – and not enough to lift the cap of 300 planes . They also contend that it’s not a decision that airport officials should be making in the first place.

“It was totally inappropriate to change a number in an adopted document,” Hamilton said.

County officials have also said San Martin is the only airport that could be geared toward the community and its turboprops and corporate jets, although formal decisions on such matters will come after capacities are set next week. Turboprops and small jets occasionally use the airport now, but operate with fuel and weight restrictions.

Gage said lengthening the runway could reduce noise impacts, increase safety and provide as economic development benefits for South County.

A longer runway – perhaps 5,000 feet or so – could mean planes would pass over homes at higher altitude – creating less noise for residents, Gage said.

While the supervisor said he’s not interested in strengthening the San Martin runway for any “big commercial jets,” any increases in corporate planes such as, say, six-passenger turboprops could be an important economic development tool for new and expanding South County businesses in the future, he said. Such planes can also be quieter than smaller, older aircraft, he said.

“I’m not expecting it to increase to accommodate any larger plane than what’s already going in there,” he said.

Considering the noise factor

A county consultant has said officials will have to consider volume, the time of day flights will occur and specific “noise signatures” of different planes to determine noise impacts.

At recommended growth levels, the San Martin airport could see a threefold jump in the amount of individual takeoffs and landings – from 56,000 a year now to up to 175,560 a year at the new maximum basing capacity, according to the consultant’s report.

San Martin’s planning committee has disagreed that corporate planes coming here will be locally-serving, and have also expressed concerns that expanding the runway and safety zones could displace residents or put heavier restrictions on hundreds of acres of surrounding land.

“We don’t have any businesses that need them,” Hamilton said of the corporate planes.

It all comes to a head Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the Supervisors’ chambers.

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