By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed an $84 million project to expand Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to enable more daily commercial flights.
Supervisors sided with supporters of the project, who touted the economic benefits of the expansion, saying they outweighed impacts on surrounding residents and the environment.
“We need a healthy economy to thrive as a community. And transportation infrastructure is absolutely a part of this,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the board.
The decision, which is set to be finalized Jan. 24, came after a four-hour meeting that included more than 40 speakers voicing either support for the project or their concerns about its effects.
Business and construction interests hailed the plan’s approval, saying an expanded airport would be a selling point for local industry and tourism.
“In this economy, this is as close to an economic home run as we’re going to get,” said Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
Some speakers opposed the project outright, saying it would bring big-city air traffic to Sonoma County.
Others, such as a group of Windsor residents that included Mayor Debora Fudge, said they agreed with proposed safety upgrades but urged supervisors to lessen impacts on airport neighbors by requiring noise limits, air traffic changes and road upgrades.
“Whatever we can do to minimize flights going over populated areas is going to make everybody happy,” said Bob Finn of Windsor.
Supervisors tentatively backed some measures to account for noise, air traffic and environmental impacts, but said their hands were tied on stronger limits by federal rules.
“If we can take a balanced approach, I think this makes it a stronger project,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who pushed for many of the conditions.
In the short term, the plan calls for a $42.7 million overhaul of the two runways, which currently meet at the north end of the airport in a V-shaped design that does not meet federal safety standards. The county would fix that by extending the main runway north by 885 feet to 6,000 feet and adding 200 feet to the second runway.
Over a 20-year period, the expansion also would include a new passenger terminal, air cargo facility, control tower and other upgrades. The timing of those improvements depends on attracting more airlines to the county-owned airport.
Most of the improvements, including the short and long-term upgrades, would be financed with federal aviation grants.
The expansion would allow more commercial flights beyond the five that Alaska Airlines — the lone carrier — currently offers per day. The upper limit would remain at 21 flights per day, a threshold already authorized by the county’s general plan but not possible with the current infrastructure.
The project also would help the airport cater to a wider range of mid-size regional jets, said Jon Stout, the airport manager.
The county is in talks with Alaska and Frontier Airlines about additional flights, but neither company has made commitments, Stout said.
County officials have said each additional regularly scheduled daily flight would add $23 million to the local economy and create 70 new jobs. Project skeptics cast doubt on those and other figures, citing a 26-year-old county study that projected passenger loads at more than twice current demand, and pegged the number of daily flights at nearly six times current numbers.
“Anticipated increase is not actual increase,” said Jean McMullen, a Windsor resident opposed to the expansion.
But business interests said a ‘no’ vote would send the wrong message to companies eyeing an investment in the area and force local travelers to keep seeking larger Bay Area flight hubs.
“Every decade, a few decisions shape a community. I think you’re sitting in front of one of them right now,” said Doug Hilberman, an expansion advocate speaking for the Construction Coalition, an advocacy arm of the North Coast Builders Exchange and Home Builders Association of Northern California.
Supervisors gave no indication that the project, approved last month by the Planning Commission and in the works for years, was ever in doubt. They gave strong backing to the runway safety upgrades.
“On that issue alone … It would be irresponsible to not move ahead with this project,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt.
The board had a longer debate over extra conditions to be added to the project’s approval. Federal sway over airport operations prevented many of the conditions requested by speakers.
Supervisors backed a recommendation by planning commissioners to seek voluntary curfew agreements on commercial flights to limit late-night and early-morning noise.
They also agreed to continue talks with federal aviation officials about adjusting the flight path to avoid neighborhoods and schools in Windsor.
A parallel local effort will study noise impacts from flight traffic and either compensate or provide noise protection for those residents found to be most affected. State standards indicate that seven homes could qualify through the year 2030, Stout said.
Other moves included:
– Allocation of $1 million toward habitat improvements to nearby Mark West Creek, Windsor Creek and Riverfront Regional Park, part of the project’s $9 million in environmental mitigation spending.
– Board support for county-paid upgrades to Shiloh Road and Airway Drive in Windsor to help with an expected increase in airport traffic.
– Delay of final decision on another proposal raised by McGuire — an assessment of public health impacts he wanted done after the completion of work on the runways, which could begin in July and finish by late 2013. Supervisors agreed to endorse the health study dependent on a cost analysis due back Jan. 24, when the board is set to finalize its vote.