Dozens protest Oceano airport changes

Los Osos developer Jeff Edwards’ desire to see the Oceano County Airport closed and redeveloped has caused a groundswell of opposition from local pilots, about 50 of whom showed up to a meeting Wednesday in Grover Beach to protest any change to the airport.

Edwards organized the meeting to discuss options for the 58-acre county-owned airport. In an interview at the Rabobank in Grover Beach, he said that his plan is more than building commercial and residential development but also about creating a town center in Oceano and creating jobs.

He envisions the county leasing the property to private developers, not selling it, for uses other than aviation.

However, the county Board of Supervisors has made it clear the board has “no interest in selling the airport,” as Chairman Frank Mecham said at the board’s March 2 meeting.

Richard Howell, airport manager for the Oceano and San Luis Obispo County

Regional airports, added Wednesday: “And just for the record, we’re not interested in leasing it either.”

Edwards said that he’s not discouraged by the supervisors’ statements.

“This is not a decision,” he said of the meeting. “It’s about information.”

Prior to the meeting, Edwards hand picked a group of Oceano residents and pilots from around the county to attend, and a Costa Mesa attorney presented a general overview of the process of closing a general aviation airport.

That selection process outraged many of the pilots and prompted someone to call Grover Beach police and complain that the meeting was not being held properly.

“I have a vested interest in the airport,” Tom Pecharich, who is working on an application that includes an aircraft maintenance facility at the Oceano airport, told Julie Tacker, a Los Osos resident who accompanied Edwards to the meeting. “I should be able to hear what you have to say.”

He was not allowed inside.

Later, Pecharich said: “It’s disappointing that they’ve asked for a public meeting and then won’t let people with a vested interested at least hear what the proposal is. To hear that there’s an unsolicited proposal to shut the airport down is very disconcerting to me.”

Grover Beach Police Chief Jim Copsey, who showed up shortly after, said the meeting room could not exceed its capacity but recommended a larger facility be reserved if another meeting were to take place. The city had no involvement in the meeting.

Twenty-four people at the meeting listened as Steven M. Taber, an aviation and environmental law attorney, discussed various aspects of closing an airport, from environmental to liability issues.

He noted that if the county were to lease the airport to commercial or residential developers, it could take some of the money from that lease and put it toward the airport in San Luis Obispo.

Since 2000, the Oceano airport has received $2.3 million from the Federal Aviation Administration and is applying for another $450,000 grant to complete the environmental work required for the upgrades.

Planned upgrades for the airport include building additional hangars, creating additional aircraft parking and upgrading the facility’s electrical system.

If the county ever wanted to close the airport, the FAA would have to determine whether the county would be released from the assurances the airport agrees to when it accepts funding.

The general aviation airport – known to pilots by its FAA identifier of “L52” – has five commercial tenants, 14 stored aircraft and 30 spots for pilots to park and tie-down their aircraft, according to Howell. It was built in the 1950s.

Edwards has organized five additional meetings featuring various experts such as a geologist, an ecologist, an economist, a climate change expert and a Coastal Act specialist, according to a news release he distributed last month.

His next meeting to discuss the airport¹s economic impact and its development potential will be held April 21.

“I can assure you that we¹ll be at these meetings and we’ll oppose you all the way,” said Bill Dunn, vice president of local airport advocacy for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, who flew out from the association’s headquarters in Frederick, Md. The association represents about 415,000 members in the United States, including about 50,000 pilots in California.

At the end of the meeting, Edwards was pressed on who was part of a volunteer ad hoc committee to explore various options for the airport. He told the group: “This is the committee right here.” To that, Dunn asked the room to raise their hand if they wanted the airport closed. No one did.

Later, Edwards said that the committee would be comprised of anyone wanting to participate. It also includes four Oceano residents who couldn’t attend the meeting. He declined to give their names.