Pilots land hard on council
DJ Becker/The Madera Tribune
Long time private pilot and resident Dan Whistler speaks to the City Council Wednesday night sharing his objections to the closure of the secondary agricultural runway at the Madera Municipal Airport. Also pictured is Acting Planning Manager for The City of Madera, Chris Boyle.
A group of about 25 local pilots and longtime aviation enthusiasts filled the Madera City Council chambers Wednesday night, some of them angry and others shocked at even the possibility of the closure of the secondary agricultural runway long used by area crop dusters and other pilots.
But as far as the city is concerned the fate of the 3,702-foot-long crosswind runway has been sealed, leaving city staff and sitting council members in the awkward and unenviable position of justifying an initial decision apparently made as far back as 1993 to close the runway, as the residential population of Madera grew.
Complicating matters further, the city, anticipating the closure of the runway moved forward with the building and completion of the new multimillion-dollar city fire station at the end of and in the path of that runway.
The Madera Municipal Airport is three miles north of the city and was built in 1943 by the Army Corps of Engineers. It consists of 524 acres, two runways and is a city-owned, uncontrolled public facility.
The runway closure had been more recently finalized and updated in 2015, by an independent multiagency agreement called the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan of which local pilots and members of the Madera Airport Advisory Commission claimed they were not made aware. That agreement dictates the full closure of the secondary runway at the end of this season, or August 2019.
The Madera Countywide Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan or ALUCP was drafted by the County of Madera in 2015 and replaces the original 1993 plan. It states in part: “Preparation of the ALUCP is required by the State Aeronautics Act. The ALUCP is intended to promote compatibility between airport operations and surrounding land uses, considering noise, safety, airspace protection and overflight effects. Neither the ALUCP nor the ALUC have authority over existing land uses, operation of the airport, or state, federal, or tribal lands. Nor does the ALUCP propose future airport or land use development, or other physical changes to the environment.”
Members of the autonomous 2015 Madera Airport Land Use Commission who approved and adopted the plan were: Chairman Ross Thornton, John Reed, vice chairman, and Commissioners Luis CeJa, Donald Horal, Thomas Hurst, Larry Pistoresi, and Ralph Tonseth. Donald Horal was the lone dissenting vote, according to city records.
Crop dusters and recreational pilots are crying foul. Some suspect that the action to close the runway without a lot of public notice, was due to previous city officials being unduly influenced by the thought of the large amounts of new tax revenue from 10,000 or more new homes planned for the area.
“Madera has plenty of (vacant) land to build on, why reduce the value of our airport with something like this? asked one pilot, who shook his head in disbelief. Another pilot commented everything in Madera was related to agriculture, and the runway closure would now have rippling effects and only increase the costs to growers.
Longtime pilot Dan Whistler, speaking for the pilots’ group, said he was beyond blindsided by the runway closure announcement. “That (reaction) was a couple of months ago.” he said. Now he and his group were just trying to figure out how this 2015 plan had happened without pilots and other residents being informed. “We are diligently looking into, with the help of some very fine people, local pilots, how this happened five years ago. I don’t know how the developers got to be so involved and be allowed to build that many homes near the most active airport in Madera County,” Whistler said.
Whistler said he felt the decision could potentially be reversed by the city council if enough people speak out, because the 2015 agreement was not properly noticed to the public or even the Madera Airport Advisory Commission. “It’s the city’s responsibility. They circumvented their responsibility by only doing a token effort (to give notice to the public in 2015 of this potential closure).” he said.
City officials say the proper notice was provided and any impacts of the agricultural runway closure can be likely be minimized because the crop dusting planes can still utilize the 5,545-foot main runway, and other fueling and mechanical services of the airport.
The FAA also no longer funds the maintenance of the Ag runway, city officials said, and it could cost several million dollars to rehabilitate or to bring it up to FAA standards. Without that FFA support, the city of Madera is not in a position to fund those improvements.