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The Healdsburg City Council on Monday unanimously approved a controversial application for a flight school at the municipal airport, despite the concerns of neighboring residents worried about increased noise, pollution and the possibility of aviation accidents.

"He isn't somebody who is going to let dangerous things happen over the skies of Healdsburg," Councilman Shaun McCaffrey said of the application by Robert Markword of Ram Aviation. "This isn't going to become Healdsburg International."

The council heard from approximately 30 speakers who were evenly divided over whether to approve or reject Markword's small flight school.

"The reality is we (will) have better control of this flight school than others that visit our airport," said Councilman Gary Plass, who noted student pilots for years have come from other airports to practice touch-and-go landings in Healdsburg.

Opponents argued the increased flights and noise will lessen the quality of life and adversely affect property values as well as tourism in Dry Creek Valley.

But pilots said rather than being a threat, a flight school can be helpful by promoting safe operations and adherence to noise abatement procedures.

Student pilots said it is much easier for a beginning pilot to land and take off from an uncontrolled airport such as Healdsburg, as opposed to a controlled field like Santa Rosa.

Markword currently offers pilot ground school instruction and flight simulator training at the Healdsburg Airport off Lytton Springs Road but wants to add flight instruction and airplane rental to his business.

He plans to charter up to five planes and conduct up to 10 flights a day, with two operations per month at night, up to midnight.

The airport has been in existence since 1945. It was leased to the city in 1964 and known as the Norton Sky Ranch before the city bought it in 1979.

There currently are 55 aircraft at the airport and just under 13,000 operations a year.

An airport master plan approved in 2006 by the city estimated that would increase to 24,300 runway operations and more than 82 aircraft based at the airport by 2025.

The scenic airport with its half-mile-long runway was busier in previous decades with as many as 30,000 take-off and landings annually in the early 1990s. Pilots say fuel costs and other factors have reduced the number of flights.

During the 1980s, three flight schools operated at the airport at various times, but there is none now.

Healdsburg has accepted Federal Aviation Grant money — $2.9 million — for operations and improvements at the airport. Therefore, city officials say they can't restrict the use of the airport for flights assuming all federal and state requirements are complied with by those using the airport.

Councilman Jim Wood said the reality is that because of federal aviation strings that come with accepting federal money, the city would face sanctions if it did not approve the school.

But opponents disagreed.

"The council has the authority to deny this application," said Lee Fitzgerald, a Lytton Springs Road resident. "It is not safe, or environmentally sound."

He said it violates the commitment the city made in the past not to allow flight schools at the airport.

In approving a runway expansion in 1991, the city acknowledges it imposed a condition prohibiting flight schools at the Healdsburg Municipal airport. But city officials said the 2006 airport master plan eliminated the restriction.

Opponents worried that if one flight school comes in, it will expand or others will follow.

"You let one in, it will be the camel's nose under the tent," said Healdsburg resident Ron Duff.

But Gary Medvigy, a Sonoma County judge and civil air patrol pilot, said "our nation was built on aviation, like our trains moving west."

He said the airport has been there more than 60 years and people who don't like it shouldn't live near it.

"I can't imagine in the time and era we're in now you would stifle a small businessman. Pilots are good people," he told the council.

Walter Maack, a Healdsburg physician who lives next to the airport, raised concerns about lead in aviation gas, what he said is an insidious chemical.

"There no safe level no safe threshold at what you can have in the body," he said.

He also raised the specter of more crashes. "I imagine student pilots make more errors than seasoned pilots," he said. "Take and off and landings are when more accidents happen."

Vern Simmons of Burgundy Road said the economic benefit of the small flight school doesn't seem to be worth the aggravation it will bring.

"The pain to the neighbors and the larger community aren't worth the gain," he said.

But the council seemed persuaded in part by the votes of confidence from pilots and others who spoke about Markword.

"If I thought for a second Rob's proposal would generate a lot of noise or big safety issue I would not be before you tonight," said Steve Price, a pilot who vouched for Markword's professionalism and conscientiousness.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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