By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
County planners on Thursday backed a plan to expand Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, voting 4-1 for an $84 million project that includes longer runways, more commercial flights and a new passenger terminal.
The plan will go to county supervisors next month for final action.
“This project really is about safety,” said Commissioner Jason Liles.
Federal aviation authorities have ordered changes to the airport’s runways because they don’t meet current safety standards.
Timing of the expansion depends on attracting more airlines to the county-owned airport. The county is in talks with Alaska and Frontier Airlines about additional flights, but they’ve made no commitments, airport manager Jon Stout said Thursday.
Most of the improvements would be financed with federal aviation grants, which are linked to the level of airport activity.
The project calls for the airport’s main runway to be extended by 885 feet to 6,000 feet, which would meet current safety requirements and accommodate larger aircraft.
The plan permits up to 21 commercial flights a day by 2030. Currently, Alaska Airlines operates five flights a day from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Las Vegas.
At a hearing Thursday, critics said they’re worried about the noise impacts of more flights and larger aircraft, especially in Windsor, which is just north of the airport.
But supporters downplayed the impacts and said the airport expansion is needed to boost Sonoma County’s economy.
On Thursday, planning commissioners said they support long-term airport expansion, but pushed for some restrictions on noise.
Airlines should agree to a voluntary curfew on commercial flights between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the commission said. The planners also asked for periodic noise monitoring as the airport adds flights.
Commissioner Greg Carr was the only vote against expansion. “More could be done to address the impacts,” he said.
The 20-year plan also provides for a new air traffic control tower, air cargo facility, fire station and dozens of other improvements. It would authorize the airport to purchase additional land for runway safety and buffer zones.
On Thursday, a dozen airport neighbors, environmentalists and business representatives voiced differing views on the project.
Airport expansion threatens natural wetlands, said Jane Nielson of the Sonoma County Water Coalition.
“Wetlands support life,” she said. “We’ve already lost 80 percent of them.”
But expansion is needed to attract business, said Gary Lentz, an executive at a Santa Rosa accounting firm.
“It makes us that much more attractive as a place to do business,” he said.
In a letter, the town of Windsor expressed concerns about increased airport traffic on Shiloh Road at Highway 101 and Skylane Boulevard.
The plan is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10. It must also be approved by federal authorities before it can be implemented.
Work on some projects could start next year if the airport gets the go-ahead, Stout said.