Residents Challenge Hangar Construction at California Airport

JUNE 6, 2003

The San Martin Neighborhood Alliance filed a long-threatened lawsuit against the county Thursday that challenges the approval of 100 new airplane hangars at San Martin's South County Airport and the adequacy of an environmental study concerning them.

The suit alleges an environmental analysis done by the county violates the California Environmental Quality Act and does not properly address community impacts. The county's study, called a "negative declaration" in bureaucratic jargon, argues there will not be significant impacts if certain mitigation measures are followed.

It is the first such legal action made by the neighborhood alliance, a nonprofit group formed to give residents more notice and input in land-use decisions and help ensure development stays in harmony with the community's rural neighborhoods.

"We're all disappointed the county put us in this situation," said Richard van't Rood, a San Martin resident and attorney who volunteered to file the suit for the alliance along with fellow San Martin resident and attorney Charles Logan. "The last thing I want to do is fight with the county, but they forced the situation because they won't listen to the citizens."

But District 1 County Supervisor Don Gage, who voted to approve the hangars with other supervisors, said county legal staff have indicated that a full-blown environmental impact report or EIR -- which is a more intensive level of review than the existing negative declaration -- isn't necessary. "I don't know what's on the minds of the San Martin people, but I think they think the EIR will show we shouldn't do (the project) there," he said. "I don't believe that's the case. Even if we lose the lawsuit, it means we do an EIR and means delay, but it doesn't mean the project will go away."

The alliance argues that while the new hangars could more than double the amount of air traffic at the airport, impacts from those flights -- especially noise and pollution -- have not been adequately studied in context of existing rural conditions or in connection with larger long-term expansion plans.

The county justified the hangars under the airport's previous 1982 master plan, which the county is in the process of updating. Alliance members believe that's putting the cart before the horse, that the old master plan is "stale" and a full environmental impact report should address the hangars in context of the overall expansion.

If the hangar project was being pursued by the private sector and not the county, a full environmental impact report would have been required, Alliance President Sylvia Hamilton said. "County projects should be held to the same standard," she said. "The county is not exempt from the rules."

Gage agrees the county likely would have to do a full EIR if the project was a development being started from scratch, but he notes the hangars are an addition to a long-existing airport that was already outlined in previous plans and stays within existing airport boundaries. "It's not like we're constructing that thing from ground zero," he said.

The alliance will seek an injunction that would delay the start of construction on the project until a judge can hear the merits of the case. A hearing on the request is scheduled for June 26.

The alliance has been critical of decisions made so far in the master plan update concerning airplane capacity at South County Airport. Under recommendations approved by supervisors, the San Martin airfield will absorb most of the new growth in the county's three-airport system, growing to a maximum capacity of 418 planes by 2022. South County Airport currently has room for 178 planes. Roughly 90 planes park at the airport now.

Alliance members argue South County is being improperly used to accommodate North County demand. But county officials say they're trying to achieve balance across the county's three-airport system.

Source: The Gilroy Dispatch