Opposing sides have begun firing the big guns involving investigations and $40 million lawsuit in the battle over a 180-foot-tall building near Montgomery Field. The FAA has declared that the portion of the Sunroad Centrum building that projects above 160 feet agl is a hazard to navigable airspace. Architectural plans obtained by the California Division of Aeronautics indicate that the full height of the structure is 186 feet agl. The division is working with the city's legal staff to ensure the developer fully complies with the State Aeronautics Act, which prohibits hazards near airports.
City Attorney Michael Aguirre told officials of Sunroad Enterprises on January 30 to stop work on the top two floors or face criminal misdemeanor charges. On February 12, Sunroad sued the city for $40 million in damages caused by delays to the project.
In the meantime, AOPA officials have talked with Aguirre, the AOPA legal department, and area pilots in the preparation of subpoenas for depositions that are part of a lawsuit against the developer that AOPA has joined. "We're appalled that the developer refuses to mitigate the hazard," said AOPA Vice President of Airports Bill Dunn.
Sunroad accused Aguirre of taking private property without compensation, but Aguirre says the company promised in June 2006 that it would limit the building to 160 feet, after belatedly contacting the FAA at the urging of local pilots and learning of the hazard declaration. Thirty days later, Sunroad, Aguirre said, informed the FAA that the company had topped out the building at 180 feet, which contradicts the plan.
A Sunroad-hired public relations agency in mid-February had no comment on the firm's plans to build two more buildings in the same location, both proposed at elevations still higher than 180 feet agl. The firm does admit, however, that it had aviation consultant Williams Aviation Consultants based near Phoenix do a study. The finding? That the FAA is wrong about the building being a hazard. An FAA spokesman said he could not comment on the lawsuit, but referred to previous statements indicating it is the FAA, not Sunroad, that determines aviation hazards.
Sunroad official Tom Story, a former San Diego planner and chief of staff to a former mayor, said the lawsuit was filed "with great reluctance." Story said the company has a track record of doing the right thing within the community.
Oceanside City Council officials had a change of heart Wednesday, February 14, voting 4-1 to keep Oceanside Municipal Airport open. The council voted to operate the airport in perpetuity in compliance with FAA grants, build up the airport to fulfill its master plan, and create an airport advisory panel and good-neighbor policy.
The council also directed city staff to report back to the council in 90 days on options including federal and state grants. "This was a complete one-eighty for the council," said AOPA Vice President of Airports Bill Dunn. "Even the mayor, who had opposed the airport, voted to keep it open."
AOPA worked closely with local pilots last year to develop support for pro-airport candidates running for City Council positions. Airport advocate Rocky Chavez won re-election, and Jerry Kern, also an airport supporter, edged out Shari Mackin to turn the City Council to a three-to-two majority in favor of the airport.
The City Council vote is proof that AOPA's efforts paid off. The decision to keep the airport open also comes less than three weeks after the FAA sent a warning letter to the city about its obligations to keep the airport operating in perpetuity. "Because of the important role that this airport plays, the FAA does not anticipate granting any request for release to allow closure of the airport," the agency said.
The FAA also recommended the city could better spend its time on airport planning, including the following:
AOPA has successfully defeated numerous attempts to close Oceanside airport.
(See " California Flying: Surf's Up at Oceanside," page 18-C.)