Forcing the little guy out?

One man’s development is another man’s grounds for objection.

A $30 million redevelopment project at McClellan-Palomar Airport (CRQ) in San Diego is under way, but the dozens of pilots displaced by the project have not dropped their complaint alleging that the development is designed to push general aviation interests off the field.

Last September, pilots and airport business owners filed a Part 16 complaint with the FAA after they were given a 30-day notice to vacate their hangars so that 40 Eisenhower-era wooden buildings could be torn down. County airport officials assert the old hangars, which had sagging walls and doors, did not meet current building codes.

Palomar Air Center, the company behind the development, intends to build new metal hangars with electric lift doors, fire sprinkler and security systems, and treated floors. Additional waterlines will be installed and utilities will be placed underground. Rent for the new buildings, obviously, will be more than tenants paid for the old ones.

Several businesses, including Pacific Coast Flyers, a not-for-profit flying club, were displaced by the project, as were more than 100 GA aircraft that call the airport home. In the complaint filed with the FAA, the business owners and pilots allege the remodeling project was conceived and executed “secretly” and that it is causing “imminent economic displacement and physical destruction” of several businesses and the forced relocation of more than 150 aircraft.

The developer disagrees with the charges.

“The tenants had been on a month-to-month lease for 10 years,” states Richard Sax, president of Palomar Air Center. “They knew this development was coming. We are the lease holder and we are exercising our rights under the lease. There was nothing secret about it.”

The pilots allege the redevelopment is geared toward providing hangar space for corporate aircraft that are currently based at the airport.

“Nineteen business jets are displacing 150 general aviation aircraft,” said Matthew Goddard, founder of the flying club. “The airport doesn’t care about the little guy.”

Sax disputes the assertion that the development is for jets only.

“There is nothing that says this development is for just jets,” he says. “Space is space when you are looking for someplace to store your aircraft,” he said, noting that a flying school with 18 small aircraft is one of the future tenants. “I also have a 30-year lease with a man with four partners. They all have small planes, all with reciprocating engines.

They will own their own hangar for 30 years. It is the difference between renting an apartment and owning a condo.”

San Diego County Airports Director Peter Drinkwater noted that officials were working with displaced pilots to help them find tie-down space elsewhere on the airport or at other airports in the county during the two years construction is slated to take place.

“Some of us can’t relocate,” countered Goddard, who noted the flying club is using temporary tie-down space. “The club doesn’t have that luxury because everyone associated with the club is here. If the club relocates, it dies.”

Goddard is skeptical of the county’s claims that GA parking space will be created on the north side of the airport.

“They didn’t even talk about it until we made a stink about being relocated,” he says. “There are no guarantees or assurances that they will build parking for us. Why didn’t they build it first so we had some place to go?”

According to Drinkwater, the county did not have the permits for the parking area when the development began.

“We are in the design phase,” he said. “A large GA ramp should be completed by fall of 2006. We have a timing problem, not an incompatibility problem.”

For the plaintiffs, the redevelopment amounts to economic discrimination, and they allege it violates FAA grant assurances.

As this issue was going to press, the FAA was still investigating the complaint.

“Grant assurances vary from airport to airport,” said Marcia Adams, FAA spokesperson. “We look at the situation to ensure there is reasonable access to an airport.” Adams could not comment on the situation at Palomar because the investigation is ongoing. “If anyone feels they have been denied access, there is a venue for them bring it to our attention.”

If an airport is found to be in violation of grant assurances, repercussions can vary from a letter of reprimand to losing its eligibility for FAA funds.

In the meantime, the construction continues.

“The grading has been completed and we expect to be pouring concrete as soon as the rain lets up,” said Sax. “We are at two-thirds capacity now and we don’t even have steel in the air.”

For more information: 760-431-4646.

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