By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Neighbors of the Healdsburg Municipal Airport knew they wouldn’t be able to count on quiet all the time living in the vicinity of a small aviation
But some say they got more than they bargained for: pilots don’t always stick to the flight path, they fly too low, and noise from a hovering helicopter practicing take-offs and landings rattles nearby country homes and estates.
“I was in my hot tub last night at 7 o’clock when a plane buzzed my head,” said Julie Gilles, a Chablis Road resident, who said she could see the pilot’s head.
Hers was among the complaints aired Wednesday night when the Healdsburg Transportation Commission on a 4-3 vote rejected an application for a flight school at the airport located off Lytton Springs Road.
The vote was only advisory and the City Council is expected to make the ultimate determination, probably at its Aug.19 meeting.
“I think it’s a small country airport and it’s really meant for hobbyists. I think it’s inappropriate to have businesses of that scale here,” said Sylvia Hurst, a winery owner who lives on Chiquita Road, about a mile away from the airport.
“We continue to have planes fly off the flight path on a regular basis, which strongly affects our peaceful country life,” she said of the low-flying aircraft directly over the home she and her husband Phil have shared for 19 years.
She asserted that adding a flight school will only make things worse, although some pilots who spoke Wednesday disagreed.
“Rob will train people to fly away from people’s homes,” said pilot Paul LeBrett, in reference to Robert Markwood’s flight school application.
LeBrett and other pilots said the airport, built in 1939 as a private landing strip before it was taken over by the city, has had flight schools that have come and gone through the years.
Markwood, who currently offers pilot ground-school instruction and flight simulator training, wants to add flight instruction and airplane rental to his business.
He intends to charter up to five planes, conduct up to 10 flights a day, with two operations per month at night, up to midnight.
That may seem a small increase for an airport that, according to the city, experienced approximately 13,000 takeoffs and landings in 2012. There are about 50 aircraft based there now.
According to pilots, the scenic airport with its half-mile-long runway was even busier in the 1980s. Fuel costs and other factors, they say, have reduced the number of flights.
“The number of complaints when I first came on were considerably more,” said transportation commissioner John Lloyd.
But Markwood’s application provided an opportunity for residents to vent pent-up frustrations with noise they’ve endured for years.
It also prompted differing opinions about the economic value of the airport and whether the relatively small income the city gets from it is worth the irritation to area residents.
Assistant City Manager David Mickaelian said the city spends about $5,000 a year to run the airport. There is an airport manager on site five days a week who works for the city.
The city also accepts Federal Aviation Administration grant money for the operation and therefore is not able to restrict the use of the airport for flights, assuming all FAA requirements are met, according to Mickaelian.
Bretta Rambo, who’s lived close to the airport for 20 years, said a lawsuit brought by neighbors was resolved in the early 1990s with the city committing to noise reduction procedures, including keeping takeoffs and landing to the west, away from inhabited areas.
“The city has made a commitment to neighbors,” she said.
Newcomers like physician Robert Pousman, who just closed escrow on his property, said he might not have purchased his home on Lytton Springs Road if he knew a flight school was being proposed.
He and other opponents raised concerns about safety and the potential for crashes, as well as the effect on health from leaded airplane fuel and the erosion of their property values.
Walter Maack, an emergency room physician who lives near the airport, said constant noise is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
Allowing the flight school, he said, will open the door for increased uses from crop dusting to tourist travel.
But Charles Brown, a pilot since 1949, compared living next to an airport to living next to a golf course. He lives next to Healdsburg’s golf course, he said, and has put up with hundreds of errant golf balls hitting his house, shattering windows, skylights and denting his cars.
“I’m not saying shut down the golf course. If I didn’t like it, I could sell my house,” he said. “ I would love to own land out by the airport.”
But he said the pilots need to be courteous, and one of the biggest enemies is irresponsible pilots who don’t respect the flights pattern. “They’re a mark against us in the aviation industry,” he said.
The controversy comes at the same time the city is planning to rejuvenate the runway with a slurry seal overlay and make other improvements.
The City Council this week authorized bidding for the runway pavement rehabilitation project and runway lighting improvements. The estimated $585,000 project is to be funded with FAA grant money.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.