Monday, February 10, 2014
County considers $17 million Novato airport expansion
By Nels Johnson
The Marin (CA) Independent Journal
Airport Manager Dan Jensen points to drawing that shows airport expansion plans at Gnoss Field on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Novato, Calif. Plans are to extend the runway 1,100 feet to the north.
AN AMBITIOUS $17 million plan to improve the county airport at Gnoss Field by extending the runway 1,100 feet would cut through wetland habitat, but won't have any "significant unavoidable impact" on the environment, a county consultant says.
The runway project, which officials said is needed to improve safety, efficiency and meet Federal Aviation Administration standards, has drawn fire from neighbors who fear a fleet of bigger, noisy jets.
It also has raised eyebrows from environmentalists since the project would require filling almost 12 acres of wetlands, as well as nearly three acres of channels and ditches.
But an analysis by Landrum & Brown, a global aviation consulting firm which bills itself as an advocate of "sustainable green airport" programs, all but dismissed the possibility of bigger aircraft, and said measures can be taken to ease environmental concerns.
The report indicates the project at the 120-acre facility north of Novato will provide enough runway to allow "existing aircraft ... to operate at maximum gross takeoff weight" in adverse weather conditions. Maximum passenger, cargo and fuel loads are now limited by a 3,300-foot runway.
Neighbors, however, say the report fails to analyze potential impacts, including noise generated by bigger jets, and plan to show up at the Civic Center at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday when county supervisors are scheduled to weigh in.
Christopher Gilkerson of Saddle Wood Drive says he is among 90 neighbors with concerns about extending the runway because the move could attract bigger jets that will disrupt the community. Gilkerson called the consultant's analysis "a shoddy piece of analytical work" that ignores the impacts of "the larger and louder jets that would be attracted."
Further, Gilkerson said the expensive plan does make economic sense in light of a county contention that the project would merely allow existing aircraft there, including the biggest, a single Cessna 525 air taxi, to take off with a full cargo.
The airport, home for 206 single-engine aircraft, 15 multiengine craft and a helicopter, accommodates 85,000 air arrivals and departures a year. The number of aircraft based at the facility is expected to increase about 1.4 percent annually to 387 planes in 2027, with arrivals and departures increasing to 124,300 over the period.
"Commercial aviation ... is anticipated to grow at an average annual rate of 5.7 percent from 2013 to 2018 ... with or without the runway extension," county officials reported in a "question and answer" sheet prepared for county supervisors. In any event, major airlines will not be able to use the facility. Smaller craft as well as those with wingspans up to 79 feet that "currently operate at the airport are expected to continue."
The county report added that officials cannot regulate the type of aircraft that can be allowed.
"Gnoss Field is available to all aircraft that can be accommodated ... The proposed project will have the effect of allowing existing aircraft that use Gnoss Field that are currently weight-restricted by the runway length to depart fully loaded."
Further, "the proposed changes will not accommodate larger aircraft than the critical aircraft type ... Cessna 525 that currently land at Gnoss Field," the staff report asserted.
As for noise implications for residents in the Bahia and Rush Creek areas, "with the runway extension, aircraft would be able to take off, climb higher and turn away (from residences) sooner, which will reduce the noise levels for the homeowners," the report said.
Plans to extend the runway, envisioned by both the county's airport master plan and the countywide plan, depend largely on federal funding. The expansion plan could cost $16.9 million, with $2.1 million in federal grants already in hand. The tab is in addition to $4.4 million in capital improvements needed at the facility, including an automated weather observation system, pump station, asphalt repair and related work.
Although the consultant's analysis identifies 58 environmental impacts, it targets only 15 as significant or potentially significant, and says all can be eased, including the wetland situation, through a range of "compensatory mitigation plans" such as providing funding for Bay Area wildlife programs.
Key county officials were briefed on the project by public works staff at a recent workshop session, and several supervisors asked for more specifics, with Kate Sears wondering exactly how much the improvement will increase use of the airport.
Dan Jensen, airport manager, said that the program "could encourage more aircraft to come," but added a consultant will provide details on Tuesday.
Supervisor Steve Kinsey said he looked forward to airport expansion, but added staff must be ready to provide a "holistic" view of the "value it would bring" to the community. "I want us to have a much closer sense of what this airport means to our community," Kinsey said.
Aviation enthusiasts have argued for years that runway improvement is essential for reasons including emergency preparedness, public and pilot safety as well as efficiency, but environmentalists have been less than enthusiastic, saying the plan goes too far.
"The runway project has been on the radar for years, but the justification for going the whole 1,100 feet has been missing," said Susan Stompe of Novato, past president of the Marin Conservation League. "The potential fleet of planes was ignored as well as the impacts."
But Mark Sheron, president of the Gnoss Field Community Association, said runway improvements as proposed are critical to boost safety, meet FAA requirements and reduce noise by enabling pilots to alter their flight paths and avoid residential neighborhoods.
"We are in favor of the project," the Novato pilot said.
If you go
The Marin County Board of Supervisors will meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the Gnoss Field airport expansion. The meeting will be held in the supervisors chambers at the Marin Civic Center, 3501 Civic Center Drive.