CA Airport Plan is Defeated

Airport Expansion Dumped

By M. C. Naylor

Despite the loss of three federal grants comprising 90 percent of the $7.4 million it would cost and the possibility of repaying $300,000 for already-spent funds, the Oakdale City Council voted down a proposal Monday night to expand the Oakdale Airport through condemnation procedures.

The action, made on a 3-2 split vote, also provided a win for JLG Holsteins, who opposed the Eminent Domain process on 2.7 acres of its property. The argument posed by an attorney for the firm was countered by the City Special Attorney for Eminent Domain on the grounds that it did not meet a "legal" definition for public necessity.

The public hearing bordered on acrimony at several points, and the positions weaved back and forth between point and counterpoint throughout the testimony. However, the decision finally hinged on two key elements out of three findings required in the Hearing of Necessity in order to approve an eminent domain resolution.

These concerned the interpretation of public need and whether that public need would be served. The other focal point of discussion was that of safety at the airport.

The proposal before the council was the acquisition of portions of two parcels of property adjoining Oakdale Airport owned by JLG Holsteins and by Oakdale Commercial Feed. An original proposal was for acquisition of 49.85 acres of land, that city staff stated in its proposal was required for safety reasons and to accommodate larger aircraft at the airport.

The proposal also stated that $4.7 expansion would also increase Oakdale's ability to provide passenger and cargo services, and would expand the present facilities from 117 to 160 acres. A total 1,380 feet would have been added to the runway and additional hangers constructed on part of the property. Both properties are located south of the airport, the JLG Holstein portions on Laughlin Road and the Oakdale Feed property adjacent to and north of the airport and east of OID's south main canal.

At Monday's hearing, City Administrator Bruce Bannerman said the original proposal was amended to request acquisition of only 2.7 acres of the JLG Holsteins property, in a compromise that would move fill to other portions of the proposed project and relocate the added hangers. A proposal to acquire a 7.64 parcel of that property was dropped. The change would only have condemned JLG property directly in the runway extension area.

According to the proposal, the "necessity" for the action was determined since the construction project is currently out to bid, and part of the project requires relocation of the Oakdale Irrigation District south main canal that must be done when the canal is empty, before the 2005 irrigation season beginning Sept. 1.

In Monday's action, Councilmember Robert Deklinski made the motion to pass the Eminent Domain property acquisition on the JLG Holsteins portion of the property and Councilmember Britta M. Skavdahl made the second, with these two members composing the supporting votes on the council. Each of the three other members voted "no" to the motion. These were Mayor Pat Kuhn, Mayor Pro Tem Farrell Jackson and Councilmember Phil Rockey.

In what can only be described as a complex decision, each of those members made their decision on a wide variety of reasons, and the arguments by the JLG attorney and the special legal counsel for the city proposed quite differing concepts of the public interest at stake.

Acrimony and Contest

Testifying on behalf of JLG Holsteins' opposition to the condemnation was Attorney Bret Dickerson of the Modesto firm of Gianelli and Fores, who contested the three basic premises upon which the proposal was made. He also encountered immediate challenge from Councilmember Robert Deklinski. Both the attorney and the councilman spared throughout the remainder of Dickerson's presentation, and Deklinski, at one point, threatened to terminate the attorney's presentation.

Dickerson described his testimony as both procedural -to place an objection to the Eminent Domain process on file- and substantive -to present specific objections to the proposal based upon the city's three stated reasons. These, he said, were that the City Master Plan proposes expansion of the airport, that there is a public need for expansion of the proposal for accommodating passengers and commerce, and that there is a safety issue at the airport.

After an initial presentation of his position, when he began providing detail and making a position, Councilmember Deklinski interrupted Dickerson, stating the attorney was beginning to talk jargon and gibberish and was becoming belligerent toward the council.

"If you don't tone it down," said Deklinski, "I'm going to ask you to leave.

Later, during an exhaustive exchange over the question of whether or not JLG Hosteins had a motive of objecting to the expansion because the owners wanted themselves to build hangers on the property, there was another exchange.

Both Dickerson and the propertyowners said that a conversation inferring that they could build the hangers on the property if that's what the city wanted was a casual and not a serious remark.

During Deklinski's discussion on the issue, he said that he didn't accept that position. "What you told me (about the hangers) just doesn't wash with me," he said. "You were willing to build those hangers. ..... I have been in law enforcement for over 30 years, and you're not going to con me."

Dickerson responded in kind, stating that a moment before Deklinski had accused him of being belligerent, now he was. "Now I've been insulted," said the attorney. "I have answered your questions honestly. Is this where this is going!" he exhorted.

Public Misguided

In his presentation, the JLG Holsteins attorney, Dickerson, said there was no safety issue at the airport. He said that similar cities throughout the Valley have 3,000-foot long runways that adequately serve those communities, and that in the last 20 years, no accidents at the airport had been caused by the length of the runway. They were all found to be based upon pilot error or flying conditions.

Dickerson also said that the expansion was targeted for larger Lear Jet access, that there is no actual need for that level of access based upon the present or projected commercial needs. He further argued that the Lear Jet target was aimed at one present airport client, and that the Master Plan position was based upon projections for the airport use that have not materialized.

According to the attorney, the Master Plan projects an operation rate of 33 per hour at the airport by 2005, when the actual rate of use is six or seven, or about 10 percent of the projects. He also said that Oakdale does not have the facilities to offer that level of operation. Lear Jet specifications call for an even longer runway than Oakdale proposes, he stated, and Lear Jet owners would seek facilities like Stockton or Modesto that have the type of ancillary accommodations afforded that level of air service.

"The airport is not suitable for every operation out there," said Dickerson. "It is suitable for the majority of operations, not the exception." He cited a number of other examples and reasons to support his three positions, concluding that there was no genuine public necessity for the airport expansion.

"The public was misguided by the expansion proposal," he declared. "As it stands now, there is only one operator out there that needs an extended runway. .... For what's going on, a 3,000-foot runway is quite adequate.

"There are a lot of justifications, but they don't add up under scrutiny."

Dr. Jack Alpers, veterinarian for JLG Holsteins, also testified, stating that the nationally known business firm had been in its location for 30 years and deserved some consideration. He also said the runway would be 7,500 feet closer to the animals, which was not desirable for either the firm or other ranchette owners in the area.

Public Need Defined

Drawing out a position that was technical and largely lost in the discussion, City Special Attorney for the Eminent Domain Neil Costanzo, of Hargrove and Costanzo, said that JLG Holsteins' position was based upon a "literal" rather than a "legal" concept of public need.

He said that courts have consistently ruled that municipal councils have the authority to determine public need based upon the larger public purpose of a project and the consequent additional enhancement of its value to the public. The JLG Holsteins position, he said, was improperly focused upon the term "necessary."

"The real question is does it advance a proper public purpose," said Costanzo. "It is within the perview of the council to determine the public necessity." He also said that the FFA has stated what is needed to enhance the "safety" and "usefulness" of the Oakdale Airport, and it is those standards that were utilized in approving the federal grants for the project.

Councilmember Britta M. Skavdahl asked City Attorney Thomas Hallinan his position on the matter, and he also supported the special attorney's interpretation.

"What courts have constantly supported," said Costanzo, "is a 'legal' argument," rather than the literal one positioned by JLG Holsteins' attorney.

City council members varied widely on their reasons for voting the way that each one did, with no two members having exactly the same position or basis for their vote (see accompanying story).

After the vote, it was determined there was no need for discussion or action on the second of the Eminent Domain public hearings, on the Oakdale Commercial Feed property, and it was removed from the agenda.

Leader Managing Editor Mitchell C. Naylor may be contacted at mitch@oakdaleleader.net

© 2004 The Oakdale Leader www.mantecabulletin.com

Vote nixes Oakdale airport plan

By Inga Miller

A $4.7 million expansion project at Oakdale Airport is off the books after property owners opposed selling their land and the City Council decided not to take it through eminent domain.

Negotiations between the city and the landowners had stretched out about a year.

"The property is essential to the project, so without the property, we don't have a project," City Administrator Bruce Bannerman said Tuesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration awarded grant money to pay for 90 percent of the cost, and the money will be returned, Bannerman said.

"I'm very disappointed because a year ago, I was under the impression that these were all willing sellers," Mayor Pat Kuhn said before the council's 3-2 vote Monday night, but added that she could not make a "finding that this is in the greatest public necessity."

Of all the people basing aircraft at the airport, a fraction live within the city limit, she said. City taxpayers subsidize the cost of running the airport to the tune of $15,000 to $25,000 per year.

Councilmen Farrell Jackson and Phil Rockey joined Kuhn is voting against seizing the property through eminent domain, citing a lack of necessity for the project.

The expansion project would have included a longer runway, as called for in the airport's 1996 master plan. A longer runway would accommodate larger and heavier planes. Now, turboprops and small jets are free to land on the 3,020-foot-long strip, but some must do so without cargo or passengers.

Under the proposal, the runway would have been lengthened 1,380 feet. The extra length would have made it safer for all planes, said Sherman Porter, airport manager.

The project required 2.7 acres from JLG Enterprises Inc., which operates a bull ranch on the land, and 39.5 acres owned by Oakdale Commercial Feed Yards.

The council acted first on the JLG Enterprises land, and after deciding against eminent domain, did not need to consider acquiring the other land.

"I think it will be a lot better for the community," said Jack Lerch, part owner of JLG Enterprises, after the vote. "We don't need it, I don't think."

The expansion project also called for more hangar space, which is now subject to a waiting list. The master plan identified hangar revenue as a potential way of bringing the airport out of the red.

"I think our long-term goal is to make this airport self-sufficient, to find a niche market. And citizens inside the city limit deserve for it (to pay for itself)," said Councilwoman Britta Skavdahl, who voted for eminent domain.

"Certainly, it has been a project long in the making and not one that I am particularly willing to back out of at this juncture."

She noted that the city is likely to be on the hook for $400,000 in FAA grant money already spent on planning.

Councilman Bob Deklinski cast the other vote to proceed with eminent domain, citing the safety factor of a longer runway.

Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com.

© 2004 The Modesto Bee www.modbee.com