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Fight of the concourse: San Luis Obispo's land-use update turned into a three-year battle with the Airport Land Use Commission. Now what?

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View a slideshow of the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport by staff photographer Kaori Funahashi.

Bill Borgsmiller casually fiddled with a few instruments on the dashboard of his 1971 twin-prop Cessna 310, and the plane lurched forward slightly as the engines slowed to an idle. An alarm began to buzz in the small cabin filled with beige leather seats and the artificial smell of new car.

Borgsmiller gestured to the densely clustered homes beneath, but then pointed out at the open spaces in front of the nose, facing toward the eastern hills of San Luis Obispo.

PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

“It’s OK to have a congested area,” Borgsmiller said, his voice crackling over the headset microphone, “as long as you’ve got some open space next to it. I’ve got a lot of options if our engines were to conk out.”

By options, Borgsmiller meant places to put the plane down in a worst-case scenario—like if his engines really did “conk out” rather than just idling while he made a point. And Borgsmiller is always mindful of his options. He took New Times on a brief ride to give reporters an idea of the various flight paths pilots use when taking off from or landing at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. At an elevation of about 1,200 feet, roughly the height at which most flight paths take going in and out of the airport, things down below seem fairly simple—far simpler than the issue has taken shape on the ground.

Borgsmiller cranked the engines back to speed and banked to the right on one of four primary paths planes take to and from the airport. Today, pilots navigate these flight patterns easily, with plenty of open space to potentially plop down a malfunctioning plane without destroying a home.

Just a few hours after Borgsmiller’s wheels lifted off the runway, the SLO City Council would take its final crucial vote on future planning efforts—specifically whether to overrule the county Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) to implement the city’s Land Use and Circulation Elements update to the General Plan.

Discussions on the subject have been deeply complex, tying obtuse planning policies to airport safety and noise regulations, all mired in warring opinions from city staffers, consultants, Caltrans aeronautics officials, three years of planning, and more than $1.3 million on the city’s part.

Put more simply: The situation leading to the vote, and likely the aftermath of the vote itself, had become a mess no one wanted.

City officials have criticized ALUC commissioners for refusing to compromise; ALUC commissioners have accused city officials of the same; lawyers have been at the ready all around; a brand-new city councilmember, Dan Rivoire, became the crucial vote to achieve a needed 4-1 majority; and members of the business community have cautioned that without action, SLO’s cost of living will only get more expensive.

On the other hand, local pilots—though not all—have cautioned that with too much action, the planned developments around the airport could pinch out available space, making the area less safe and more prone to noise complaints from residents.

In one of the conference rooms of Borgsmiller’s Aviation Consultants Inc.—with one window overlooking the runway, a cabinet of model planes along the wall, and another window overlooking three planes parked in the hangar—the pilot and ALUC commisioner had laid out a large map that depicted the differences between the city’s plans, and those of the ALUC. For the city, dense development would push right up to safety and noise buffers drawn primarily by a city consultant; for commissioners, development would be significantly limited in a large oval swath of land surrounding the airport. Neither option was ideal for Borgsmiller, who advocates for concessions all around.

“I think there’s room for compromise,” he said, though he admitted that until that point, there hadn’t been much compromise.

And when the City Council met that night, there wasn’t a compromise.

 

Overruled

The most important thing to know at this stage in the conversation about future development around the airport in southern SLO is that the conversation isn’t over.

Though the City Council voted 4-1 on Dec. 9 to overrule the ALUC and move forward with its LUCE update, officials from the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics have indicated they might sue to overturn the council’s decision.

At the heart of that decision is a massive planning document (the LUCE) that’s been largely overshadowed by the mounting tension over a small overlay zone in southern SLO around the airport. City officials now have plans to rezone the area, allowing for specific plans on such projects as the Avila Ranch, San Luis Ranch, and Madonna area Froom Ranch—though no project has been approved as a part of the LUCE update.

THE DISSENT:  Councilman Dan Carpenter was the sole dissenter when the City Council voted 4-1 on Dec. 9 to overrule the Airport Land Use Commission and move forward with planned land-use changes to southern SLO. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • THE DISSENT: Councilman Dan Carpenter was the sole dissenter when the City Council voted 4-1 on Dec. 9 to overrule the Airport Land Use Commission and move forward with planned land-use changes to southern SLO.

Avila Ranch alone could include as many as 700 single-family and multi-family units, while the Dalidio property proposed for the San Luis Ranch could have a buildout of 500 units, according to a city Fiscal Impact Analysis. In total, the city expects the LUCE update could generate as much as $3.1 million per year toward the General Fund and help accommodate as many 4,230 new residents.

The problem is that such a plan is inconsistent with the ALUC’s existing land uses.

In written correspondence with city officials, Caltrans said it supports the existing Airport Land Use Plan and considers it consistent with the California Airport Land Use Handbook. In other words, Caltrans said a city overrule would be inconsistent with that plan.

Though a Caltrans lawsuit has been a frequent topic of conversation at public meetings, local officials are hesitant to talk. Caltrans Public Information Officer Jim Shivers told New Times “it would be premature to speculate” about potential litigation in the future.

The local office released a single sentence on the issue: “Caltrans has some concerns about the noise and public safety aspects of the Land Use and Circulation Element update related to development near the airport, but we will support the city and Airport Land Use Commission in an effort to resolve these issues.”

In fact, city officials still hope to reach an agreement with the ALUC post-overrule as the commission moves forward with its own project to update the Airport Land Use Plan. Despite butting heads for about three years, officials believe a compromise is still possible for one simple reason: The new commissioners are probably more friendly to city proposals. And, as city officials describe it, the new members are more likely to base their decisions on scientific data.

At the Dec. 9 City Council meeting, Mayor Jan Marx said that she’s “hopeful” it will be possible to work more closely with new commissioners on the ALUC, adding that “the older commission at the time rejected our update out of hand.”

One person from that older commission is Dr. Robert Tefft, who, after almost two decades on the commission, wasn’t reappointed earlier this year (Tefft is now an alternate commissioner). On Dec. 2, Marx called Tefft “the chief architect of the present Airport Land Use Master Plan” and said newer members are “more savvy” at working with real data to reach land-use decisions.

Asked why he wasn’t reappointed, Tefft told New Times he believed “the city wanted someone who would be more sympathetic with their position.”

“I think their feeling was that—gosh, it’s hard to say this without sounding bad—I was putting a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of effort in defending the airport land-use plan,” Tefft said. “The word they use is ‘more flexible.’ They were looking for someone more flexible.”

ALUC Chair Roger Oxborrow said he felt Tefft was pushed out for political reasons, rather than his qualifications to stay on the commission. He further criticized city officials in their dealings with the ALUC.

“What would have been a really good thing to happen is if the city had come to the commission and said, ‘We need to develop; this is a site that works with [city] infrastructure. How can we make it safe?’” Oxborrow told New Times. “They did not do that. They went out and hired this aviation consultant [Johnson Aviation] who basically—and this is just my opinion—wrote a report that said what the city wanted it to say and proceeded without any consultation at all with the Airport Land Use Commission.”

What’s interesting about such a statement is that some city officials criticize the ALUC of precisely the same offense: that the ALUC refused to budge from its plan. But the same city officials add that the existing airport land-use plans have no scientific or data-driven backing. According to Marx, it’s been primarily pilot preference.

She dismissed the notion that the city was trying to stack the commission membership in its favor, as well as the idea that the city was seeking out information from its consultant that simply supported its own plans. She referred to Johnson Aviation as “very, very well respected in the field,” adding, “I am confident they have given us good information.” And Marx seemed confident that the city could work with commissioners in the future, as long as they can support their decisions with solid data.

“In terms of Dr. Tefft, he can speculate all he wishes about the reason he was not reappointed,” Marx said. “However, I think it was a good decision; he’s been on the Airport Land use Commission for decades, and it’s time for the commission to move on.”

According to the latest contract update, Johnson Aviation has billed $218,900 for its services, which was paid through a combination of city funds and from developers directly impacted by the LUCE update. As of press time, Johnson Aviation had requested an additional $55,000 for “on-call services” during the LUCE update public hearings.

Community Development Director Derek Johnson also told New Times that the ALUC’s plans didn’t rely on sound data to support its position that would limit development density around the airport.

“If you start to use a made-up standard, then you start to say, ‘Maybe we’ve divorced ourselves from a whole analytical framework for how we’re going to make decisions about safety and noise,’” he said.

THE MAJORITY:  SLO Mayor Jan Marx believes the Airport Land Use Commission flippantly rejected the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element update outright with no evidence to support its decision. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • THE MAJORITY: SLO Mayor Jan Marx believes the Airport Land Use Commission flippantly rejected the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element update outright with no evidence to support its decision.

Not all commissioners have opposed city plans, and some have even changed stance as the process moved forward. Commissioner Allen Settle (former SLO mayor) wrote to the city on Oct. 16 that while he previously recommended the city delay its vote on an overrule, “positive steps” from the city caused him to change his position. He encouraged the city to approve its LUCE update and continue working with the commission in the future.

SLO’s move to overrule the ALUC isn’t at all uncommon in California, where such cities as Costa Mesa and Hayward have taken similar steps. And in the city of Perris, city officials were able to reach a compromise with their ALUC, using the same consultant hired by SLO: Johnson Aviation.

“We did not want to get into a situation where the city of Perris would simply overrule a potentially stricter airport land-use compatibility plan,” said John Guerin, principal planner for the Riverside County ALUC. “… Not everybody got everything they wanted, but there was sufficient give and take that produced a very good plan.”

When you ask SLO city officials about their next steps, they often say that the upcoming phase will be to work with the ALUC as it updates its own plans, and to try to help guide that plan utilizing the city’s data provided by Johnson Aviation. It remains unclear how the ALUC’s new plan will take shape, or even if it will produce results more in line with the updated LUCE. According to various people familiar with the plans, the updated noise buffer zones could be even larger than those in the existing plan. No matter what the outcome, though, nearby residents will probably continue to complain.

“Modeled noise does not equate to where people are bothered by airplanes,” Airport Manager Kevin Bumen said, adding that the airport receives “more than a few” noise-complaint calls every week, most of which come from within 2 miles of the airport.

“I’m not in the camp of you don’t build anything anywhere,” Bumen said. “I just think you need to be very considerate of where it is, what it is, how it’s built, and do it smart.”

Beyond the back-and-forth arguments that have taken place between city officials and members of the ALUC, each side seems driven by a simple goal. For the city, that goal is to add additional housing and commercial development within SLO’s urban-reserve and reduce the cost of housing as well as traffic congestion from commuters.

For staunch airport advocates, the fear is that more development around the airport will eventually lead to the airport’s closure.

THE PLAN:  Community Development Director Derek Johnson (left) and Deputy Director Kim Murry argued before the SLO City Council that data from Johnson Aviation about safety and noise led city staff to push for an overrule of - the county’s Airport Land Use Commission. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • THE PLAN: Community Development Director Derek Johnson (left) and Deputy Director Kim Murry argued before the SLO City Council that data from Johnson Aviation about safety and noise led city staff to push for an overrule of the county’s Airport Land Use Commission.

“Everything that they’ve done, they’ve tried to discredit our existing Airport Land Use Plan, because if it’s not valid then obviously [they] can override it and put houses on it,” Oxborrow said.

This is the fear because it’s happening in Santa Monica. The Santa Monica Municipal Airport was once an airport surrounded by pilots during World War II, but encroaching housing developments eventually led to conflict. Nearby residents objected to the noise and fumes from an increasing number of jets on a single runway. In November, a majority of Santa Monica voters passed a measure giving authority over the land to the city, which can now partially or completely close the airport.

“What it is that’s going on now is simply development pressure,” said Bill Worden, president of the Santa Monica Airport Association. “The city needs to develop land continually to stay afloat.”

Without a concerted effort to keep SLO’s airport vital, it could begin to lose services as have other airports nearby, according to Economic Vitality Corporation President and CEO Mike Manchak. At the same time the city is preparing the airport area for eventual development, there are simultaneous plans to upgrade the airport infrastructure to make it a more viable gateway for local businesses. But Manchak said he doesn’t see the two efforts in conflict because the airport expansion plans are moderate. The bigger issue for Manchak is the housing shortage in SLO that could eventually lead to an exodus of companies that have nowhere to house employees.

“If we know we need more housing and we know we don’t have an infinite number of places to put housing, and the city wants to put the housing there, well, now what?” Manchak said.

For Lenny Grant, the principal in architecture for RRM Design (which is handling the application for the planned San Luis Ranch project), southern SLO is not just the only place left to develop in the city, but it may be one of the last viable spots in the county.

“I think we’re running out of land that’s actually developable, even in what looks like a very rural county,” Grant said.

Without these projects, he said the city will fail to meet state mandates to grow and provide more affordable housing, and the county will become more economically segregated as high home prices push residents out of SLO.

Others, like former City Councilwoman Kathy Smith, aren’t so convinced.

“The reason as given is the housing and the need for housing,” Smith told New Times. “And I agree that there’s a need for housing. I don’t have a lot of faith in it being affordable housing.”

Smith and Councilman Dan Carpenter previously blocked proposals to overrule the ALUC (Carpenter was the only dissenting vote on Dec. 9 after Rivoire replaced Smith). Both told New Times that past projects in the city have been pitched as affordable, but the home prices then ballooned after construction. For his part, Carpenter said he believed developers and city staff had too great an influence on the LUCE update process. He advocated that the city should have held off on an overrule until an agreement could be reached with ALUC members.

THE MIDDLEMAN:  Bill Borgsmiller is a new member of the Airport Land Use Commission, and believes that both the city and the commission have failed to reach what he describes as a fairly common-sense middle ground on land-use issues around the airport. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • THE MIDDLEMAN: Bill Borgsmiller is a new member of the Airport Land Use Commission, and believes that both the city and the commission have failed to reach what he describes as a fairly common-sense middle ground on land-use issues around the airport.

“For some reason—and I’ve got to believe it’s developer driven—[the LUCE update has] got to be done now; right now,” Carpenter said. “The city sees the money. I think it’s money driven; you follow the money.”

The LUCE update was refined and polished by a 17-member task force, which met regularly and took in community input through various meetings and a well-received community survey. But even the task force failed to reach a unanimous agreement.

In January, three of the task force members—Sandra Rowley, Carla Saunders, and Sharon Whitney—wrote a “minority report” about the LUCE update process. According to the report, individual neighborhoods weren’t given sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the process as neighborhood-specific meetings were rejected in favor of broader community meetings that weren’t well attended. The minority report authors also said the update process was dictated by city consultants and staff, forcing task force members to polish existing policies rather than crafting their own.

In fact, the task force removed staff language that described the LUCE update process as featuring “a robust community engagement program” and “well-attended community workshops.” Specifically, the task force removed the words “robust” and “well-attended.”

Johnson, the Community Development director, balked the suggestion that city staffers were heavy handed with the task force.

“Ultimately, what the task force recommended looked nothing like what staff brought forward—nothing,” he said. “It was a complete overhaul.”

When it came to the possibility of an ALUC overrule, the task force voted unanimously to refer the possibility to the City Council “without either approval or disapproval.” One of the task force members expressed “reservation with the process, not the content,” according to the meeting minutes. Two other members said they did “not feel qualified or prepared to deal with this.” The LUCE update went before the city planning commission for approval about one week later. About one year later, the city went forward with an overrule.

City officials told New Times that now the clock is ticking, and they will have to wait and see if a lawsuit or voter referendum will challenge that overrule.

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

 

There's been a lot of talk recently about development proposals in the area surrounding the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. City officials say members of the Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) have previously refused to come to the table, while some pilots say that high-density development and airports generally do not mix. ALUC Commissioner Bill Borgsmiller recently took New Times for a flight to see what makes SLO's airport unique.

PHOTOS AND VIDEOS BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

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