VAN NUYS -- After years of contentious discussions about plans for a long-awaited propeller park, officials at Van Nuys Airport say construction on the 39-acre site will begin by March.
Plans for the park, hailed as a key for small-plane owners and the businesses that cater to them at the nation's busiest general-aviation airport, have faltered for years while airport officials have sought an operator.
But now, despite not yet having an operator, officials said they are moving forward with plans anyway.
``There have been no intentional delays, but we have had to take consecutive actions for each item, and some have taken longer than we would have liked,'' said Selina Birk, general manager of Van Nuys Airport.
The first phase of construction -- demolition of the Old National Guard site on the west side of the airport -- is being funded by the airport as a way to entice potential developers to the project.
Birk said the airport is committed to finding a tenant to develop the propeller park quickly.
``We know that every pilot has to start somewhere, so it is extremely important to protect that part of the industry,'' she said.
Prop owners worried
But owners of propeller-driven planes remain skeptical, continuing to fear that the park will not be done before many are forced to leave the airport.
The park was approved in January 2006 as part of the airport's master plan to guarantee propeller planes would remain at the airfield as jets expand their presence.
While officials had estimated a year ago that the project would be completed by 2009, now the park is not expected to open before 2010.
Aviation companies such as Maguire and Skytrails Aviation are already notifying tenants that they will have to move to make way for renovations aimed at increasing space for jets.
``They are squeezing us out,'' said Lawrence Rabbe, a small-plane owner and member of the airport's Citizen Advisory Council.
Rabbe, who has already moved around the airfield several times because of parking and hangar-rate increases, said her landlord -- Skytrails Aviation -- has already announced intentions to develop its hangar space for jets.
Month-to-month tenants such as Rabbe could be forced out as early as January.
Rabbe said she is not against the development of the airport, just the exclusion of propeller aircraft.
``I am a flight attendant, a private pilot. I love planes,'' Rabbe said. ``But if small planes continue to be pushed out for these big, fancy jets, Van Nuys will no longer be a general-aviation airport.''
Prop planes dwindle
Talk of a propeller park started years ago while the airport was negotiating its master plan, a process that took 15 years.
The park was supposed to ensure that propeller planes -- whose numbers have been dwindling at the airport -- continued to have a space on the airfield.
The number of propeller planes based at the airport has dropped from 1,100 in 1983 to just 485 last year. During that same time, jets at the airport have increased from 83 to 209, including 20 military jets.
Plans for the propeller park helped the airport gain community support for its master plan. Neighbors have fought any construction efforts at the airport because of the noise pollution that jets cause.
Mark Sullivan, owner of Skytrails Aviation, said he is going out of his way to accommodate propeller-plane owners.
He is leasing a seven-acre parcel from the airport and paying $500,000 to clear space that was previously used as a parking lot. Sullivan will also pay for moving small portable hangars to the site.
He added that the tie-down cost for planes in the temporary facility will remain the same. His current average tie-down fee for planes stored outdoors on the tarmac is about $185 a month.
``I can't even afford an airplane, and here they are complaining about being relocated,'' Sullivan said. ``Fact of the matter is, where they are being displaced (to) will be a better space than where they are now.''
Mike Pupitch, owner of a vintage World War II B-25 plane that has sat at the airport for about three decades, is also being displaced by Skytrails' renovations.
He said the open-air tie-down space that is being offered is not acceptable.
``A tie-down outside is a slow death on the airplane,'' Pupitch said, contending that wind and sun would wreak havoc on his historic plane.
Pupitch is hoping a hearing with airport officials Monday will help him find a place for his vintage plane.
Pupitch and a few community residents want to convert one of a few public hangars left on the field into an airport museum that would house Pupitch's plane and highlight the airport's long history with propeller aircraft, he said.
Longtime airport tenant Margie Oldenkamp, president of MPG Inc., questioned the airport's commitment to the propeller-aircraft community.
Oldenkamp, a founder of the Van Nuys Propeller Plane Association, said airport officials have failed to expedite the propeller park and have made rent very expensive for potential developers.
``They are giving us the space but making it impossible to actually do something with it,'' Oldenkamp said.
Currently, airport officials have set the minimum rent per year for the propeller park area at $15,000 per acre.
Oldenkamp, who is planning to bid on the park, said if she develops it, it will be for the public good and not for profit. The minimum rent the airport charges is not affordable to owners of propeller planes, she said. Propeller-plane owners pay $100 to $150 a month to tie down their planes on the field.
Miller losing space
In preliminary designs for the park, as many as 259 propeller planes were expected to be able to use the area.
While the situation for small-plane owners is difficult, business owners at the airport could be faced with even tougher circumstances.
Ken Miller, owner of the Van Nuys Flight Center, said his facility -- which still had 11 years left on its lease -- recently changed ownership.
Now Miller's building is scheduled to be demolished, and Miller said he has been told he could be evicted as early as January.
Miller was hoping to become an anchor tenant at the airport's new propeller park, but he said he could be forced to relocate to another airport if it isn't completed in time.
``I don't know what's going to happen; there is nothing conclusive,'' Miller said.
Miller said several propeller pilots have already left the field and the situation could get worse unless the airport boosts its efforts.
``If you want to attract businesses, you need to have facilities for them and services that make it ideal to accommodate their needs,'' Miller added.
``But a prop park done right could literally be an asset to the community, somewhere you could take your children. It could make Van Nuys a destination.''