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"California's Byron Airport slow in taking off"



Sunday, March 25, 2001

East County airport slow in taking off
Much was promised when the facility was built in 1994; a master plan will
look at what it will take to grow
BY SARAH ROHRS
The Contra Costa (CA) Times


BYRON -- On many days the sleepy silence is broken only by the wind rattling
through the aluminum hangars. Occasionally, a pilot revs his engine and
takes off. Then silence returns.

The Byron Airport is the poor stepsister of the better known and busier
Buchanan Field near Concord. Here, there are no towers directing air
traffic, no flight schools, no businesses catering to the needs of pilots.

Despite its lonely location and the perception of it being the county's
forgotten airport, hopes are high the Byron Airport will someday play a role
in bolstering the local economy.

But seven years after opening, the county-owned facility still has no new
plan for growing, making a profit or bringing some measure of prosperity to
East Contra Costa County. It operates under an outdated 1986 master plan.

There is a growing interest in the airport's economic growth, though,
particularly because of the need to provide jobs for thousands of new
residents.

Brentwood, one of California's fastest-growing cities with about 20,000
residents, is next door. Each day thousands of commuters stream by on Byron
Highway and Vasco Road to job centers elsewhere.

Some say that with the right push the tiny airport could help bring jobs and
economic growth to far East County. At the very least, such growth could
make the airport profitable.

Contra Costa County Supervisor Federal Glover said that Byron Airport is
primed to grow and that more effort should go into marketing it.

"It's one of the greatest opportunities for that area in terms of being able
to bring economic development and jobs ..." Glover said. "We have to
stimulate business out there and do some things to attract different
businesses."

David Mendez, airport director for both Byron and Buchanan, said a new
master plan will examine what the airport needs to grow -- more hangars,
longer runways and related businesses.

"The potential is there. That's why everyone's excited," Mendez said.

Others, particularly those long familiar with the airport, contend it is
hampered by competition from other small airports and that it is too remote
to draw business. They also say there is not as much overflow business from
Buchanan as originally expected.

Buchanan Field revenue subsidizes Byron Airport, making it a drain on county
resources. And some development potential is automatically eliminated
because 60 percent of the county's holdings are wildlife refuges set aside
for kit foxes and other protected species.

A deficit in the airport enterprise fund and dearth of commercial activity
caught the eye of the 2000 Contra Costa County grand jury, which argued the
county had neglected the facility. County officials disagreed, saying they
are working on a long-range business plan.

Mendez said he has whittled down the $1.4 million deficit. He is confident
Byron eventually will be able to stand on its own two feet.

The $20 million airport was built in 1994 with federal grants after more
than 20 years of planning. It is at the end of a narrow road. Its neighbors
are cattle ranches and wind farms.

Byron Airport replaced the private Byron Airpark; its purpose was mainly to
handle the overflow from airports in Concord, Oakland, Livermore and
Hayward.

The airport gained a touch of notoriety in 1997 when police found thousands
of boxes of human cremains in a hangar, hidden there by a pilot who had been
hired to scatter them. The pilot killed himself days after the gruesome
discovery.

The few families living near the airport have long ties to the land with
several generations of families homesteading and raising cattle. Through the
years, they have complained about noise from the jets and helicopters flying
overhead and posed concerns about whether the airport would hurt chances to
develop their property.

If the airport does expand, they want to be heard.

"We have property out there that's been very impacted," said landowner Diane
Bradford. "Before the airport is enlarged, they need to think about the
surrounding properties."

To protect the airport, the county could restrict the Bradfords from
building on part of their land.

Weekend destination

The airport is used mostly for recreation. Sky divers and recreational
pilots flock here on sunny days and weekends. Helicopter pilots and pilots
in training for Korean Airlines also use the facilities.

One of the busiest tenants is Randy Howell of Discovery Bay, who owns and
houses eight vintage Russian MiG-17 jets at the airport. He and his partners
fly the shiny red planes in air and stunt shows.

During the week, a handful of pilots fly out of the Byron airport to commute
to work. A few businesses, such as U.S. Print in Brentwood, store commercial
planes for trips to corporate headquarters.

"We're very happy here," said Mike Tjaarda of Bay Area Sky Diving. "It's a
beautiful runway, and the facilities are adequate."

As a general aviation facility, the airport can handle almost any aircraft
except large corporate jets and commercially scheduled flights. The
4,500-foot runway is long enough to handle Learjets, but there is no demand
for such use and no corporate hangars. The biggest demand is for more
hangars, which are now all full, said Mark Grosenheider, Byron Airport's
operations specialist.

Master plan

Crucial decisions on airport growth hinge on the master plan that will be
paid for with a $350,000 Federal Aviation Administration grant, which should
come within the next three months.

This master plan will look at the growth potential and possible uses, such
as more hangars, offices and flight schools. The need for longer runways and
wider roads will be examined. The master plan will take at least a year to
complete, Mendez said.

He said 10 to 15 years down the road, the airport could become a midsize
cargo facility that could handle bigger and more planes.

"Right now, Byron Airport fits its role well as a general reliever airport,"
Mendez said.

Visions take flight

In the meantime, a handful of entrepreneurs are waiting for the county's
plan before committing themselves.

Standing next to a swept-wing, silver MiG, Howell said the county has told
him he needs to wait for the master plan before proposing to build a museum
for aviation enthusiasts.

Another airport user, pilot Rick Mann, said the county needs to take a
stronger approach to promoting the airport or nothing will happen.

Surrounded by undeveloped land, Byron has even more ability to grow
commercially than Buchanan, consultants to the county have said.

However, county officials want the airport to grow carefully so that it can
avoid the kinds of problems that plague Buchanan Field, where homes and
businesses extend nearly to the runways, and noise complaints are common.

At Byron, planes fly mostly over undeveloped hills. But Mountain House, a
new town with 16,000 projected homes east of the airport near Tracy, will be
in the flight path. This could generate more noise complaints and land-use
conflicts.

Plans and more plans

Neighboring cities include the airport in their economic plans. Byron,
Brentwood and Discovery Bay believe the airport could be a key factor in
bringing more jobs to their communities.

Although some residents have complained about planes flying overhead, David
Piepho, a Discovery Bay Town Council member, said the airport is desirable
for his community.

"Byron Airport adds to our quality of life. It's very convenient for a lot
of folks," Piepho said.

Don Manning, Contra Costa Economic Partnership business consultant, shares
the view that the airport's expansion could be a boon for the area.

"Byron Airport could be a centerpiece and a real catalyst for business
activity," Manning said.

Brentwood real estate agent Robert Moreno said the county needs to stop
stalling and do some intelligent and creative planning to demonstrate the
airport's potential. Until then, not much will change.

"No one wants to take the first dip into the pool. Nobody is really doing
anything," said Moreno, who has explored selling property on nearby Byron
Hot Springs.

At least one business is in the works: re-opening the Byron Hot Springs, a
luxury health resort from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Dave Fowler of East
Bay Associates said his new version of the resort, which will include a golf
course, could complement the Byron Airport. He expects his resort to be
built in two years.

"It would help the airport," Fowler said. "It would give people a reason to
fly in and golf, and it could help turn the economy around for the airport."

Others, particularly those involved with Byron Airport's development for
many years, said the airport's potential will not be easily realized because
of its remote location and because of competition from airports in Stockton,
Livermore and Rio Vista.

Kathy Leighton of the Airport Land Use Commission and a fifth-generation
Byron resident, does not see a boom in the immediate future, particularly
because pilots needing a larger airport can easily go to Stockton.

"I don't see it happening in my lifetime," Leighton said. "It's just not
needed."

Discovery Bay's Anthony Steller, a former member of the Airport Aviation
Committee, said East County has unrealistic expectations about growth
because the county made too many promises when it built the airport. The
committee advises on the airport's operations and facilities.

The airport mainly attracts recreational users, not businesses, Steller
said.

"They were promising everyone honeycomb and roses. People thought they were
going to have a business park and that there would be an economic boom. They
were elated because Byron has absolutely nothing," Steller said.

Unfortunate timing also played a part in Byron's lack of growth, said Hal
Yeager, who is president of People Over Planes, a citizens airport watchdog
group based in Pleasant Hill. When the county started to plan the Byron
facility about 20 years ago, Buchanan Field was reaching capacity, he said.

Increasing insurance rates and rising fuel costs caused an industry
recession in the early 1980s. Business slacked off at Buchanan, leaving less
overflow for Byron, he said. The second hit occurred when nearby military
bases closed and freed up even more airport facilities.

Airport director Mendez said the decline is not as dramatic as Yeager
portrays it.

Byron Airport doesn't suffer from surrounding competition because it
attracts mostly a recreational crowd, Mendez said.

Whether Byron Airport will be able to turn the corner and help bring
businesses to far East Contra Costa County remains to be seen.

"Yes, there is interest in growth, and that's what the master plan will
address," Mendez said.

Someone will need to take a gamble to get the commercial ball rolling, a
move that would make all the difference, said Steve Herrick of the Byron
Municipal Advisory Council.

"As soon as someone puts in a significant facility out there, it would be a
nexus. It would like the first guy on the block. As time goes by, business
at the airport could be beneficial to the airport and the people out here.
Business is always good. It could bring jobs to our area," he said.

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