Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sound effects: Residents, airport seek to be good neighbors

Many neighbors near the Yolo Airport are still excited by seeing the little planes take off an land daily. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise file photo

Keeping peace in any neighborhood is not an easy task. Toss in an airport, and the situation becomes even more of a balancing act.

Yolo County administrators find themselves juggling local economic growth with residential safety. Administrators say they are not seeking to increase commerce at Yolo County Airport, adding that safety enhancements over the next three to five years are vital to maintaining the county’s valuable asset.

However, as county officials move forward with airport improvement projects, West Plainfield and Rolling Acres residents fear that enhancements are being made for the benefit of airport commerce without concern for their neighbors.

This has led to polarized public meetings concerning ongoing airport drainage problems and noise from air traffic and construction.

“The airport is a viable economic entity,” said District 3 Supervisor Matt Rexroad of Woodland. “The revenues there should be enough to operate it, and we would love to see it generate job growth.”

Deputy County Administrator Mindi Nunes said county finances don’t allow active seeking of economic opportunities at this time, but if a company were to inquire about setting up a business on airport grounds, they would facilitate meetings with the business.

“We view that as part of the economic development plan for the county — to see this asset be used to its fullest potential for the county,” Nunes said.

Funding for airport improvements is primarily financed by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program — grants to public agencies for the planning and development of public-use airports.

Resurfacing of the 6,000-foot runway was completed in 2009, and recent grants went to trimming area trees that posed a safety risk.

In late February, the runway was closed in the evenings to allow for construction of signage and reflectors for the runway and taxiways — keeping neighbors up late into the evening with bright construction lights, jackhammering of concrete and the beeping of vehicles backing up.

“We were just at the West Plainfield Advisory Committee meeting,” said WPAC chair Robyn Waxman, who lives on County Road 95 across the street from Yolo Airport. “You think they could have told us.”

Although Waxman realizes the county may not be obligated to let area residents know about construction plans, the neighborly courtesies and communication that neighbors extend to one another are absent.

Airport manager Wes Ervin admits that the county issued a notice to pilots announcing evening runway closures from 8 p.m. until early morning, but because all the work was happening on airport grounds, neighbors were not notified.

“I suppose in retrospect it would have been good to inform neighbors that construction was going to start,” Ervin said.


According to the airport master plan revised in 1998, drainage from the airport creates one-half the flow of rainwater into Airport Slough, located south and east of the facility, where it enters the Rolling Acres neighborhood to the east.

Since beginning the airport improvements, several acres of concrete have been added for additional hangars and aircraft parking.

Ervin said the county has applied for another AIP grant to install run-up aprons — areas where pilots test, or run-up, their engines before taking off — on each end of the runway. If the grants are approved, construction could begin this year.

According to Ervin, each run-up apron will add a half-acre more of impervious surface.

However, Nunes said FAA grants have been secured to conduct a drainage study to reassess changes on airport grounds. Funds are available for 2013, but realistically, the study may not begin until 2014.

“Once that is updated,” Nunes said, “that will tell us what activities we need to undertake next.”

Nunes said she does not believe that sequestration will affect the county’s abilities to acquire an AIP grant for the construction of the airport drainage improvements.

Alexandra Latta, a West Plainfield Advisory Committee member and Rolling Acres resident, was aware that Airport Slough ran through the southeast corner of her property and that her neighborhood was prone to flooding before she moved to Rolling Acres in 2007.

“My property floods every winter,” Latta said.

Latta said she has become accustomed to preparing for rainstorms and hunkering down at home for a few days while they pass.

Road 96 becomes impassable during periods of heavy rain. Some parcels become inaccessible, leaving residents parking their cars on higher ground and using boats, canoes or kayaks to paddle home.

“I’m very grateful I have a monster truck,” said the 33-year-old attorney. “It’s the flooding along the roadways that are more concerning to me.”

Power outages are frequent in Rolling Acres during storms, and Latta is concerned about emergency vehicles being unable to access homes in an emergency.

“I wish drainage would be a higher priority for the county moving forward,” she said. “Part of the problem is lack of awareness — and better communication between the community and the county. I’m hopeful that it will be addressed.”

Rexroad notes that the addition of several more neighborhood homes also could be impacting flooding, and that he wants to see an engineer sign off on the cause.

“It is not optimal that water is running off the airport,” Rexroad said. “I don’t know for sure there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the (impermeable) surface added and the flooding.”

Jerry Hedrick, a UC Davis professor emeritus of biochemistry and a Rolling Acres resident of 39 years, said when water gets too high, his neighbors can’t get home, and he will put them up until the road is passable.

“We become an island,” Hedrick said, describing residents standing near Road 96 and Yosemite Avenue chest-deep in water.


Concern over changes to the once pastoral airport has motivated local residents to attend WPAC meetings on airport development to understand and voice their concerns.

Although residents east of the airfield are subject to flooding, residents west of Yolo Airport off Road 95 have experienced increased frustration with noise from low-flying aircraft and helicopters, and jets that they perceive to be significantly louder than propelled aircraft.

“I have been to their meetings, and they are quite spirited,” Rexroad said. “They live near an airport — it’s not always going to be quiet.”

According to Ervin, aviators are expected to use Yolo Airport’s facility directory of local rules supplementing FAA regulations — including air traffic flow in the vicinity of the airport.

Trent Meyer, a rancher and artist on Road 95, has been the most vocal of area residents, questioning the county on its principles and calling for accountability of pilots for following airport rules.

Although Meyer doesn’t own a plane, he earned his pilot’s license in 1983. When he moved to Road 95 six years ago, he considered the airport a place he could take up flying again.

“I see these guys fly on each other’s tails,” said Meyer, who spends most of his time outside working and observing airport activities.

Meyer said he has seen multiple aircraft break regulations and facility directory rules.

County administrators estimate 60,000 to 70,000 takeoffs or landings occur every year on Runway 16-34 — a north-south runway that parallels Roads 95 and 96.

Much of the traffic is from student pilots doing “touch-and-gos,” practicing a brief landing on the runway before accelerating back skyward. As an uncontrolled airfield, there is no air traffic control tower and pilots must communicate their position to each other via radio.

The resurfacing of Runway 16-34 in 2009 has made the facility safer for larger aircraft to use Yolo Airport as a portal to local industry and maintenance at Davis Flight Support.

Meyer said he also has seen a helicopter flying about 100 feet high when it nearly crashed into his wind turbine and descended, hovering 20 feet over his arena where his sheep were held.

“They went berserk,” Meyer said of his animals. “I would have no problems with aircraft if they followed the advised flight path.”

Relations between residents, the county and pilots have been the subject of heated discussion at WPAC meetings, including a Feb. 7 meeting when a pilot who uses the airport accused residents for not understanding aviation procedures and the need to fly below the minimum 500-foot requirement when on approach to Yolo Airport.

“There are probably a couple of ‘hot-doggers’ that fly in and out of there,” Nunes said, “but for the most part, the pilots that fly in there want to do the right thing.”

According to Nunes, a noise study indicates that the newer jets are actually quieter than some of the smaller planes that are coming in there now.

“We anticipate that if it does attract more jets, that won’t be an issue,” Nunes said. “It will be the smaller tail-dragger planes that are a lot more noisy than the jets.”

Yolo Airport is located in Supervisor Duane Chamberlain’s district, and he has leased and farmed hay on airport land since 1969. Supervisor Rexroad was chosen to represent the county at WPAC meetings due to Chamberlain’s conflict of interest.

“I’m not going to attend their meetings until they include county business,” Rexroad said.

Economic opportunity

Built in 1942, the airport was used by the U.S. Army Air Corps throughout World War II until the federal government conditionally ceded it to Yolo County.

Today, Davis Flight Support vice president Gary Pelfrey said his business is a portal to the areas agricultural industry and UCD campus.

“Yolo has somewhat become the Silicon Valley of the agricultural industry,” said Pelfrey, who manages 30 employees at the first-class, 20,000-square-facility. “We have a lot of corporate jets that come in to service the seed industry. Their jets will fly in and stay for two days or more.”

Pelfrey said recently a seed company flew 13 people in on a Gulfstream IV for a 72-hour visit. His clients booked 13 rooms at the Hallmark Inn in Davis, and spent money for four rental cars, meals, $600 on catering from Nugget Markets and $15,000 worth of fuel.

He said that is an example of how his business and Yolo Airport becomes a portal into the community.

“I am aware that noise is an issue with the neighbors and we want to be a good neighbor,” Pelfrey said.

He said that due to the airport’s proximity to the university, it is a viable option for medical or veterinary doctors to fly into — ironically, these are the aircraft that fly in at 2 a.m.

“Typically, jets that would land here in the middle of the night are health-related,” Pelfrey said.

Yolo Airport’s hangars are leased to capacity, and two new hangars are currently in negotiations, Nunes said.

“We wanted to see those businesses to do well,” said Rexroad of Davis Flight Support and SkyDance SkyDiving, another frequent user of Yolo Airport. “We want to allow them to grow just like any other business in the county.”

Despite neighbors’ concerns, Waxman said that living next to the airport and watching small planes fly over Yolo’s green pastures is exciting.

“They’re adorable,” Waxman said. “I love the skydivers. They are the best.”

Waxman said when she moved in to her house, she woke up the next morning to a whooshing sound and ran outside.

“There was a rainbow hot-air balloon floating over me,” she said. “We love it here!”

Matthew Blackburn


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