Palo Alto committee splits over airport's future

PALO ALTO - The fate of the Palo Alto Airport remains up in the air after the city's Finance Committee failed to agree Tuesday night on what course to take with the controversial property.

The group of four city council members split in a 2-2 vote on Tuesday night over whether and when the city should reclaim the Palo Alto airport, which while owned by the city, is leased to Santa Clara County until 2017.

Unhappy with the airport's profitability, the county has expressed an interest in getting out of the lease before 2017 an option encouraged by members of the council-appointed airport working group, which urged the city in its June report to reclaim its community resource.

On Tuesday night, Vice Mayor Larry Klein pushed to start negotiating an early termination of the county's lease of the airport "as soon as it's feasible," arguing that such a process could be lengthy.

A city staff report estimated that an orderly, well-researched transition might likely take three years.

"If we let it ride under county ownership until 2017, it won't be at the top of their list," Klein said, arguing that the property would be better maintained under more enthusiastic landlords.

But council members Bern Beecham and Dena Mossar pushed for more research first, citing concerns ranging from global warming to aviation market trends.

"I support researching what it would take to continue operating the airport," said Beecham, predicting that the city would likely want to contract out the management of airport operations. He flagged several areas of potential financial concern in the city staff report, including declining numbers of pilots nationwide and increasing vacancies in the Palo Alto airport hangars.

And the city still has to discuss several significant environmental issues, including the possibility that rising sea levels could bring the airport underwater, Mossar said.

"We know enough about global warming to know that the properties east of (U.S. Highway) 101 will be underwater within 50 years," Mossar said.

But airport working group member Rick Ellinger said later Tuesday night that in the event the airport were submerged, Palo Alto as its owner would remain ultimately responsible, no matter who ran its daily operations.

"That's not a reason to do nothing," he said.

R. Austin Wiswell, an airport consultant hired by Palo Alto to review the working group's report, similarly urged in his assessment that the city further research the airport's viability and carefully ponder its vision for the property's best use.

"Much more needs to be learned by the City before choosing any course of action, whether operating their own airport or contracting for an operator," he wrote in his analysis.

The finance committee's split recommendation will be forwarded to the city council, which will make an ultimate decision later this year.