Friday, December 2, 2011
Report: Novato airport could be expanded without significant environmental impact
By Will Jason
The Marin (CA) Independent Journal
A plane lands at the south end of the runway at Marin County Airport, Gnoss Field, on Thursday in Novato.
The runway at Gnoss Field Airport north of Novato could be expanded without significant impact to the environment, according to a pair of reports released this week by county and federal aviation officials.
Planned since the late 1990s, the proposed runway extension would lengthen the 3,300-foot runway by 1,100 feet at the county-owned airport. The $11 million-plus project would be funded mostly by the Federal Aviation Administration, and is aimed at meeting safety regulations and easing take-offs and landings for heavier aircraft.
"This proposed runway extension will bring us into compliance and will also provide greater safety for our pilots," said Marin Supervisor Judy Arnold of Novato.
Built in 1939 as a grass landing strip, Gnoss Field was purchased and modernized by the county in the 1960s. It is now the home base for some 300 aircraft, most of them privately owned, and it hosts about 95,000 take-offs and landings per year.
Aviation officials, businesses and pilots have called for an extension of the field's only runway to ease stress on planes flying with full cargo and passenger loads. Because heavier aircraft require longer runways, many planes must fly only partially full, particularly during hot weather, officials said.
Approximately 15 percent of the aircraft that use Gnoss Field are limited by the runway's length, said Craig Tackaberry, the county's assistant public works director.
The extension would also open the airport to some jet aircraft, such as the Learjet and Beechjet lines, that require longer runways, said Dan Drohan, a partner in the airport's fuel service operation and chairman and CEO of Petaluma-based Solairus Aviation, a charter and aircraft management company that has three planes based at Gnoss Field.
"A lot of operators use 4,000 feet as a minimum (runway length) for certain classes of airplanes," said Drohan, who was previously head of Sunset Aviation, a former charter operation that once kept up to 15 planes at Gnoss Field.
The environmetal reports, which were sponsored by the county and the FAA, identified a number of environmental impacts from the project, including increased stormwater runoff, the loss of approximately 23 acres of plant and wildlife habitat and the filling in of about 12 acres of wetlands.
However, the impacts can all be reduced to minor levels and the habitat impact could be offset by funding off-site conservation efforts, according to the reports.
A number of airport neighbors and environmental advocates have expressed objections to noise, air pollution and other potential impacts from the project. In phone interviews Thursday, several people who had previously raised concerns declined to comment on the environmental reports, saying they had not yet reviewed them.
"The main concern has been whether the expansion of the runway, purportedly for safety reasons, which we can all agree is important, will also lead to increased airport traffic and larger aircraft landing there," said Christopher Gilkerson, who raised concerns about the expansion at a public meeting in 2008 but had not yet reviewed the new reports.
Edward Mainland, the secretary for Sustainable Novato who criticized the project three years ago, said he remains skeptical about whether it is needed.
"I'll read the (environmental reports) to see if there is anything there that would lead me to change my mind," he said.
Arnold said the benefits of the extension would far outweigh the costs.
"Gnoss Field is a treasure in this county for a number of reasons but most importantly for safety," she said. "If we had a major earthquake or a major disaster this airport is the only other major way to get out besides Highway 101."
Construction wouldn't begin until at least 2013, when the environmental review process is expected to conclude.
Gnoss Field at a Glance
• Year first landing strip was built: 1939
• Site purchased by county: 1965
• First paved runway: 1968
• Number of takeoffs and landings in 2009: 95,000
• Number of aircraft based on site in 2008: 297
• County and FAA environmental reports on the proposed 1,100-foot runway extension are available at the county public works office at the Marin Civic Center, public libraries throughout Marin and online at tinyurl.com/gnossair.
• A hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 10 in the Board of Supervisors chambers at the Marin Civic Center. Written comments on both reports may be submitted by 4 p.m. Feb. 6 to Doug Pomeroy, Federal Aviation Administration, San Francisco Airports District Office, 1000 Marina Blvd. Suite 200, Brisbane CA 94005 or by fax to 650-872-1430.