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February 26, 2021

County discusses future of San Martin Airport

Results of airborne lead study expected in April

The San Martin Airport could become a lot busier in about a decade, if the county decides to close the Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose.

And with the extra air traffic could follow an increased airborne concentration of lead, which has been a longtime concern in the east San Jose communities surrounding Reid-Hillview, by far the busier of Santa Clara County’s two airports.

Exactly how much more traffic and other impacts the South County airport might see in the event of a closure of Reid-Hillview will be the subject of an upcoming community engagement plan, if the board of supervisors approves, County Roads and Airports Director Harry Freitas said in an online community forum with City of Morgan Hill officials Feb. 12. Freitas said he expects county staff to present such a plan—which would seek to reach out to communities surrounding the San Martin, Reid-Hillview and Palo Alto airports—to the board of supervisors in April.

The staff report in April will include more details on how the county plans to analyze the wide-ranging impacts of a potential closure of Reid-Hillview, Freitas said.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that if an airport were to close that the surrounding airports are going to have an increase in traffic,” Freitas said Feb. 12. “That subject has to be studied very carefully.”

Also in April, Freitas expects county staff to present the results of two airborne lead studies currently underway in relation to the San Martin and Reid-Hillview airports. The studies are being conducted by the California Department of Public Health. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that leaded aviation fuel is the largest source of lead emissions in the nation. Leaded aviation fuel is still in use in small, piston-engine aircraft—the kind largely used by recreational pilots, flight instructors and charters at Reid-Hillview and San Martin airports, according to county staff reports.

The county has not decided whether to close Reid-Hillview Airport, but local officials are preparing to phase out the 180-acre property’s use as an aviation facility starting in 2031. Since at least 2017, county staff and the board of supervisors have been exploring possible alternative uses for the Reid-Hillview property, including a mixed-use neighborhood development with affordable housing, parks, commercial projects and educational facilities.

In 2018, the board of supervisors voted to stop accepting grants for Reid-Hillview Airport from the Federal Aviation Administration. That action releases the county from its federal obligation to continue to operate Reid-Hillview as an airport after the latest grant (acquired in 2011) expires in 2031, Freitas explained.

In November 2020, the board of supervisors took a series of actions to further prepare for a closure of Reid-Hillview. These include directing staff to develop a plan to consolidate county airport operations in San Martin; establish a capital plan to implement improvements at San Martin Airport; and devise a plan to improve traffic flow on East San Martin Avenue, U.S. 101 and other roadways surrounding the San Martin Airport.

The supervisors in November also agreed to accept $1 million in FAA funding for an airfield repaving project at the San Martin facility.

And in December, local company San Martin Aviation took over operation of the South County airport from the previous operator, Magnum Aviation. Freitas explained that the new contract with San Martin Aviation allowed the county to assume responsibility—and revenue—for leasing about 100 hangars at the San Martin Airport.

The county has subsequently raised the rents on these hangars. “This overall represents a significant increase in revenue to the airport enterprise fund,” Freitas said Feb. 12.

Any definitive effort to close Reid-Hillview would be a lengthy process, Freitas further explained. If the county decides to close Reid-Hillview and consolidate its airport headquarters at San Martin, staff will have to produce a new master plan for the South County airport’s long-term expansion.

That process is heavily regulated by federal and state authorities, but the county has not yet presented a plan to expand or upgrade the San Martin Airport, Freitas added.

Lead in the skies

Reid-Hillview is a “significant source of lead pollution in the Santa Clara Valley,” according to a December 2018 county staff report. A 2008 EPA report ranked the airport 25th worst in the country for lead emissions, with an estimated 580 kilograms of lead emitted annually.

Lead exposure has been linked to permanently reduced cognitive function in children, according to the EPA.

Freitas said he is not aware of any previous studies of lead in the areas surrounding the San Martin Airport.

At the Feb. 12 online meeting, a member of the public asked Freitas why the community of San Martin should accept an increased threat of airborne lead with the displacement of aviation operations from east San Jose to South County.

Freitas said the county will likely schedule a community meeting in San Martin in the coming months regarding the current lead study, which will be presented to the supervisors in April.

“If the study finds there is lead being introduced to the surrounding environment, there is going to have to be action on the part of the county,” Freitas said.

In 2019, Reid-Hillview saw a total of 208,260 operations—defined as a takeoff or landing. That number dropped significantly in 2020 to 143,498, Freitas said. San Martin Airport saw 37,200 operations in 2019, and 25,700 in 2020.

Members of the San Martin Neighborhood Alliance have numerous concerns about the potential impact of new air traffic over the South County community. SMNA board President Stephen McHenry said in an email that these include possible airborne lead, increased business from loud jets, more vehicle traffic on the airport’s surrounding streets and the potential loss of a CalFire emergency base if Reid-Hillview closes.

McHenry noted that the county has already looked into the possibility of expanding the San Martin runway from 3,100 to 5,000 feet.

“A few days ago, a jet took off and it reverberated throughout the valley. We already have at least two jets that routinely fly in and out (though the runway isn’t really long enough for them to do that safely),” McHenry said. “If the runway is extended, we envision many more.”

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