Editorial: Airport commission needs to allow homeless center

Given the history of conflicts between busy airports and neighboring residential communities, we understand the need to strictly regulate new development around airports.

But enforcement of the rules should be tempered with common sense and — in this case — compassion.

We’re talking, of course, about the proposal to build a 200-bed homeless services campus at Prado Road and South Higuera Street.

We strongly urge the Airport Land Use Commission to approve the project when it meets on Wednesday.

It’s hard to imagine a more ideal location for this project.

It’s close to services — the county Social Services Department and Prado Day Center are close by; public transportation is readily available; and it’s within walking distance of downtown.

On top of that, the price is right. The county owns the property, and the Board of Supervisors has agreed to allow the one-acre parcel to be used at little or no cost.

But here’s the rub: The site is within a flight path, and for that reason, the project must be reviewed and blessed by the airport Land Use Commission.

That could be a sticking point because strictly speaking, the proposal doesn’t meet the letter of the law. Or more specifically, it doesn’t conform to the county’s Airport Land Use Plan.

Under the county’s plan, a homeless shelter is considered a residential use, which, because of noise and safety considerations, is not allowed.

Ironically, however, a hotel or motel would be permitted at the same site — though at a lower density than what is proposed for the shelter.

We find it hard to reconcile that discrepancy.

We’re not alone: A county staff report points out that, since a hotel and a homeless shelter both provide temporary shelter, it’s reasonable to argue that the two should be considered in the same category.

We wholeheartedly agree.

We also agree with another excellent point made in the staff report: That occupants of the shelter would be far safer within the walls of the facility than they would be living on the street.

For proof of that, look no farther than neighboring Santa Barbara County, where five homeless people have died on the streets already this year — including three in a single weekend.

We appreciate that the Airport Land Use Commission must be concerned with following regulations meant to enhance public safety in and around airports. But that has to be weighed against a critical need for more services for San Luis Obispo County’s homeless population. Existing shelters are overflowing, and, all too often, people are being turned away.

Under the circumstances, is it more important to provide emergency shelter and other services to help people get back on their feet — or to worry about whether a shelter is a temporary or permanent residence, or whether airplane noise is going to exceed allowable limits? (For the record, the applicants plan to use insulation to bring the noise down to the level allowable for hotels and offices.)

The Airport Land Use Commission has a “significant degree of flexibility to make planning decisions as they deem appropriate ” according to the state’s Airport Land Use Planning Handbook.

We strongly urge the commission to exercise that flexibility.

Allow a homeless campus at Prado Road and South Higuera Street to stay on course.