Development plans prompt Cloverdale to wrestle over future of its airport
What does it take to close an airport?
That’s a question on the minds of many people in Cloverdale these days, prompted by a developer’s demand that the city close it in order for him to build an adjacent upscale resort hotel and million-dollar homes.
Jes Slavik said his proposed $200 million Alexander Valley Resort and equestrian center will generate jobs along with hotel-bed, sales and property taxes - a tantalizing prospect for the small city, which has struggled with economic development since most of its lumber mills closed and the main highway was rerouted out of downtown two decades ago.
Slavik has made it clear that the municipal airport has to go. He claims the planes would spook the horses at the planned equestrian center and disturb guests and residents of the high-end resort and homes that would be built nearby, even though skeptics say horses have been known to become accustomed to airplane noise.
Potential hotel operators “all believe it would be difficult to operate a resort on the site with an airport in place,” Slavik said in an interview this week.
The demand to close the half-century-old airfield and the suggestion of “repurposing,” or transforming it into a sports complex with soccer, baseball fields and other amenities, has bolstered the hopes of airport critics already upset over noise from planes connected to a local skydiving operation.
The step also has sparked enthusiasm among residents eager to see more recreational opportunities in Cloverdale that might include team sports, as well as potential walking trails, a dog and skate park.
But the idea of closing the airport is also provoking a predictable backlash from pilots who say it’s more than just a launching pad for hobby fliers and has served as a base for medical evacuations, firefighting, business flights and a fog-free alternative when the airports in Santa Rosa and Ukiah are socked in.
“It’s not just a piece of pavement. It’s part of the community,” said Doug Dugger, a pilot and owner of Quality Sports Planes, which has operated at the airfield for 10 years, assembling, flying and selling kit planes. “A lot of people say, ‘Let’s close the airport.’ They don’t realize how valuable an airport is to the city.”
That includes serving as an alternative to get in and out of the northern part of Sonoma County in the event of a major emergency, such as an earthquake that closes down Highway 101.
“Once you lose an airport, you can never put one back in. It would be difficult,” Dugger said.
Jacqueline Kennedy, a vocal critic of the airport, counters that the facility “only benefits a handful of Cloverdale people at this time.”
Kennedy, a Dutcher Creek Road resident, is part of a contingent, including Slavik’s wife, that has complained bitterly about airplane noise from a skydiving operation headquartered at the ?58-acre airport. She said the facility has been in the red for years, costing the city money that it can ill afford to spend.
“It’s a drain on the general fund. It’s not self-sustaining at all,” she said.
City Council members don’t like that the airport does not pay for itself and draws between $30,000 to $50,000 annually from the city’s strapped general fund. But none of them are advocating closing it.
“We are not anti-airport, just anti-subsidizing it,” Councilman Joe Palla said.
He said the city is using general fund money that could go to programs that support the entire community and instead is spending it on the airport, “which doesn’t benefit most people.”
“I’m getting tired of funding a losing proposition,” Councilman Gus Wolter said. “It needs to generate income or break even.”
Plans for the Alexander Valley Resort - a revised version of an earlier approved project that included a golf course that has since been dropped - resurfaced this summer. Around the same time, the city renewed the lease for NorCal Skydiving, a move that raised questions about the airport’s deficit and how much the city should be charging businesses to operate there.
The City Council directed the city attorney to look into what it would take to close down the airport, a report that is expected to be produced soon with the help of an aviation legal expert.
Councilman Wolter said the council basically asked the attorney to “give us the pros and cons, the expense involved with shutting down the airport.”
The inquiry is set to focus on what would happen to the land, and the city’s responsibilities to pay back the Federal Aviation Administration for improvement grants, such as $1.5 million that was obtained a few years ago to repair and resurface the runways.