Fly-casting ponds raise airport's bird-strike risk

Fishing school put officials on the hook

June 13, 2012

An unpermitted fly-fishing school that excavated two ponds on property next to the Sonoma Valley Airport in Schellville, Calif., in defiance of official concern about bird-strike risks should be ordered to cease operation, AOPA said.

AOPA called on Sonoma County to take “immediate legal actions” to enforce a court order and fines in the case of the Leland Fly Fishing Ranch. The fishing business uses two “demonstration ponds” to showcase its products and teach anglers how to cast with a fly rod—but projects that attract more birds to the area of an airport are usually considered an incompatible land use, and are denied.

For several years, the fishing operator has operated without county approval while going “to great extremes to circumvent the legally required planning process,” wrote AOPA Vice President of Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn, in a June 8 letter to the chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Dunn cited a “long and extensive” record dating back to 2006 of the fishing business ignoring and operating in defiance of permitting requirements. The record included reviews by California’s Department of Transportation, the U.S. Agriculture Department, and a detailed chronology of the case in a September 2011 staff report of the airport land use commission addressing what AOPA described as the operator’s “misleading statements and actions.”

The staff report noted that state aeronautics officials recommended that Leland coordinate the project with the airport to ensure compatibility with “the future as well as existing airport operations.” The airport manager concurred with the other officials’ concerns, it said.

The record of the case makes it “abundantly clear that this Leland Fly Fishing project is not compatible with aviation operations at the Sonoma Valley Airport and creates a significant hazard to air navigation,” Dunn wrote in his letter to Board of Supervisors Chair Shirlee Zane.

In addition to the bird-strike hazard created by building the two-acre and half-acre ponds, safety issues have arisen as customers of the fishing school sometimes “wander onto airport property and into the runway safety areas,” Dunn said.

Approving such use now could expose the county to legal liability in the event of an accident, he added.

The 2012 Superior Court settlement agreement required the fishing enterprise to cease operations and pay fines to the county, Dunn said, but “neither has occurred.”

AOPA, with 50,000 pilots in California, requested that the county deny the project, order remedial steps, and undertake immediate legal action to enforce the court agreement.