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Federal obstacles stand in way of converting Montgomery to other uses

Jack McGrory, former San Diego city manager, believes the 550 acres that make up Montgomery Field (Map It)would be better suited as a mixed-use development than an airport. And even some who have been airport tenants for a long time concede it is not the land's highest and best use.

Tracy Means, the city's airports director, says federal regulations would require the replacement of Montgomery. McGrory said as he understands the rule, an airport's capacity must be replaced, but that wouldn't mean the construction of an airport would be necessary.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Donn Walker said as the laws are currently written, it is nearly impossible to close an airport if it has been receiving federal money, as Montgomery has been for decades.

Still, this hasn't stopped the discussion. McGrory said if the city ever did decide to develop Montgomery, it could yield some 4 million square feet of office and industrial space and 8,000 to 10,000 dwelling units and still have at least 100 acres of open space.

If a major portion of these units were allocated to low- and moderate-income households for rent and sale, it could go a long way toward alleviating the affordable housing shortage, McGrory said.

The topic was first formally broached about two years ago when McGrory was part of a city affordable housing task force that also included Andrea Skorepa of Casa Familiar and Donald Cohen of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Labor Council's Center on Policy Initiatives.

Now, two years later, McGrory says the idea still warrants discussion, but the city has never returned to the issue.

"Most of our recommendations were not even dignified with a hearing," he said.

Cohen shares McGrory's frustration that the city hasn't followed up with the discussions.

"The real question is where are we going to put housing?" Cohen said. Montgomery should at least be part of the overall discussion, he said.

"You could look at it, or you could fight over it. It depends on how you want to approach the problem," Cohen said.

Skorepa, a former city planning commissioner, said while it is good to have general aviation airports, the housing need is so acute that Montgomery should be on the table.

"I don't think that something is so sacrosanct that we shouldn't be able to discuss it," Skorepa said.

Means, the airports director, has said she doesn't believe Montgomery will be anything but a general aviation airport. But Buzz Gibbs of Gibbs Flying Service, whose father founded Montgomery, suggested the city's decision to not renew his lease and take it over may be a precursor to taking over the entire airport. The airport could then in theory be converted at some future date.

By Gibbs' estimation, at least 240 net acres of developable land would garner $30 to $40 per square foot for a business park or $4 million or even $5 million an acre for residential because of its superb location.

"In my opinion, you have $750 million worth of dirt," Gibbs said. "Can I stand up and say that this airport my father started is the highest and best use of this property? I can't. We have four freeways and we're surrounded by homes."

The airport was used for 214,000 operations in 2003 -- the latest figures available -- a 12.65 percent decline from the roughly 245,000 operations recorded a year earlier. Montgomery is home to about 600 home-based aircraft.

Since 1999, city staff has been working with the Madison, Wisc., consulting firm of Mead and Hunt, which is in the final stages of updating the master plan for Montgomery Field. The update will forecast the trends of the aviation market over the next 10 years.

The city says a shift will continue in the numbers and types of aircraft using the airport in the future. Single-engine aircraft are forecast to decline while multiengine aircraft are expected to increase.

A request for proposal calls for new development that will provide accommodation of larger twin engine and small jet aircraft, according to a city airport document. Additionally, the developments will appeal to the growing number of business and private jet users with an emphasis on pilot and passenger-related services such as rest lounges, catering accommodations and communication centers.

One of the longer-term projects would be the relocation of the Runway 28R landing threshold and glideslope and related improvements. While in theory this could allow larger aircraft, including somewhat larger jets, the pavement only allows for about a 20,000-pound jet.

Although thicker pavement could be put down, Means said the runway was lengthened to about 4,600 feet a decade ago with the condition that larger jets be prohibited.

While the Four Points Sheraton at 8110 Aero Drive is technically on airport property and is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion, there hasn't been a lot of other development on Montgomery itself.

Over the past two years, the city has been awarded approximately $4 million in grant money for maintenance and repair projects at the airports.

The projects include a $2.25 million perimeter fence, a heliport, a runway blast pad and the redesignation and realignment of taxiway "I."

The city also recently approved plans for a new Stand Alone Weather Station (SAWS) at Montgomery.

As for Gibbs and his lease, which is set to expire May 31, it appears he won't be staying in a management role as had been proposed. He said the issue is a complicated one, but in essence Gibbs believes it would be difficult for his business (which services about 260 aircraft) to be profitable as the city has structured the proposed contract.

Means says she has plenty of other potential operators ready to step in.

Gibbs hopes to set up shop at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.

Related Articles:

City to take over Gibbs lease (Mar. 16, 2005)

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