Airport takeover is seen as risky; Top county official warns of problems

OCEANSIDE -- The county's chief administrative officer has warned the Board of Supervisors that taking over Oceanside Municipal Airport could entangle the county in a financial, operational and legal quagmire.

Walter Ekard, the county's chief executive, stopped short of recommending against taking it over, but said in a letter dated Aug. 13, "Existing deficiencies and risks associated with Oceanside Airport may cost millions of dollars to resolve."

"In addition," Ekard wrote, "serious compliance issues with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have occurred without apparent resolution. Therefore, taking ownership of the airport may expose the county to considerable financial risk."

Ekard's letter introduced a four-page analysis by the county airport staff that said owning Oceanside's single-runway field would assure it would be developed to its fullest potential. However, the analysis concluded that the venture would be risky.

The county initiated an analysis of taking over the Oceanside airport last September after Supervisor Bill Horn asked the Board of Supervisors to explore the idea. Horn said at the time that Oceanside, led by Mayor Jim Wood, was letting the airport fall into disrepair so it could sell the land for another use.

Horn was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The city this week issued a public request seeking an independent operator for the airport, home to about 70 airplanes. The 50-acre airport, north of state Route 76 about two miles east of Interstate 5, opened as a city facility in 1963.

The county analysis identified five risks associated with airport ownership, including the city's use of $2.5 million in federal funds to purchase 15 acres next to the airport in 2003.

A citizens group sued the city over the purchase of the 15 acres, and a subsequent settlement agreement says the group must be involved in any planning for the land.

The purchase agreement gives the original owners of the 15 acres a right to buy back the land if it is not used for aviation purposes by May 2008.

The county report says that the FAA has told Wood the repurchase option violates the condition for federal funding, and that the FAA would not release the land for sale.

Additionally, the county report says, the city must develop the property for aviation by next May or pay the government either the amount of the federal grant or the fair market price of the land, "whichever is greater."

The report says it is unlikely that the land can be developed for aviation by next May, creating a legal dilemma.

Gary Gurley, the city's general services manager and airport overseer, agreed yesterday that the 15 acres must be used for airport purposes, but he said there is no mandate that buildings be constructed on it.

Gurley said the current use of the land as a buffer between the airport and nearby habitat and houses is a legitimate aviation use.

Wood said yesterday that because he had not seen Ekard's letter or the county report, it was difficult for him to comment.

He said the airport land is valuable and he would like the city to get the best value out of it. He agreed that groups with contradictory agendas -- anti- and pro-airport groups -- have sway over airport operations, and he said the city is legally required to keep the airport open for at least 10 years.

"There's probably not a piece of property around here that doesn't have a bigger wrench thrown into it," Wood said.

The county report noted that the Oceanside Airport Association alleges in a May letter to the mayor that the city might have misallocated $2.6 million the state paid the airport in 1994 for land used in widening Route 76.

The money should have been put into the airport fund but may have gone into the city's general fund, the county report says.

Wood said that event predated his election to the council so he could not comment on it.

The report says the county may explore the option of operating the airport while the city owns it, but Wood said he didn't like that.

"Oceanside's not going to be interested in having the county take it over just to run it," Wood said, because the city wants to make money from the airport.