Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed an $84 million project to expand Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to enable more daily commercial flights.
Supervisors sided with supporters of the project, who touted the economic benefits of the expansion, saying they outweighed impacts on surrounding residents and the environment.
"We need a healthy economy to thrive as a community. And transportation infrastructure is absolutely a part of this," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the board.
The decision, which is set to be finalized Jan. 24, came after a four-hour meeting that included more than 40 speakers voicing either support for the project or their concerns about its effects.
Business and construction interests hailed the plan's approval, saying an expanded airport would be a selling point for local industry and tourism.
"In this economy, this is as close to an economic home run as we're going to get," said Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
Some speakers opposed the project outright, saying it would bring big-city air traffic to Sonoma County.
Others, such as a group of Windsor residents that included Mayor Debora Fudge, said they agreed with proposed safety upgrades but urged supervisors to lessen impacts on airport neighbors by requiring noise limits, air traffic changes and road upgrades.
"Whatever we can do to minimize flights going over populated areas is going to make everybody happy," said Bob Finn of Windsor.
Supervisors tentatively backed some measures to account for noise, air traffic and environmental impacts, but said their hands were tied on stronger limits by federal rules.
"If we can take a balanced approach, I think this makes it a stronger project," said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who pushed for many of the conditions.
In the short term, the plan calls for a $42.7 million overhaul of the two runways, which currently meet at the north end of the airport in a V-shaped design that does not meet federal safety standards. The county would fix that by extending the main runway north by 885 feet to 6,000 feet and adding 200 feet to the second runway.
Over a 20-year period, the expansion also would include a new passenger terminal, air cargo facility, control tower and other upgrades. The timing of those improvements depends on attracting more airlines to the county-owned airport.
Most of the improvements, including the short and long-term upgrades, would be financed with federal aviation grants.
The expansion would allow more commercial flights beyond the five that Alaska Airlines — the lone carrier — currently offers per day. The upper limit would remain at 21 flights per day, a threshold already authorized by the county's general plan but not possible with the current infrastructure.
The project also would help the airport cater to a wider range of mid-size regional jets, said Jon Stout, the airport manager.
The county is in talks with Alaska and Frontier Airlines about additional flights, but neither company has made commitments, Stout said.
County officials have said each additional regularly scheduled daily flight would add $23 million to the local economy and create 70 new jobs. Project skeptics cast doubt on those and other figures, citing a 26-year-old county study that projected passenger loads at more than twice current demand, and pegged the number of daily flights at nearly six times current numbers.