San Jose lawmakers adopt new fee for Diridon Station, discuss airport closure

For decades, local officials have wanted to shut down San Jose’s Reid- Hillview Airport, serving local pilots, aviation students and educators as a hub for flight trainings and the local community as a resource for disaster relief.

But after hours of discussion, the San Jose City Council on Tuesday reviewed how the nearly 60-year-old airport’s closure could significantly affect the city in crucial ways, including causing inevitable congestion at the Mineta San Jose International Airport and reducing vital emergency services.

Still, local lawmakers want to assess potential land use opportunities that the airport’s closure provides in the midst of the excruciating housing crisis.

In effect, the City Council unanimously voted in favor of a proposal drafted by Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Johnny Khamis, Sergio Jimenez and Magdalena Carrasco to explore these issues. The lawmakers recommended conducting a study at the San Martin Airport to assess “traffic flow and safety improvements” and relocating aviation classes and emergency services such as the Civil Air Patrol and Cal Fire to suitable alternative sites.

Khamis also raised concerns about finding San Jose State aviation students an alternative site apart from San Martin that wasn’t “30 miles away” for a student to attend a class.

Currently, the lawmakers are considering only San Martin and Hayward airports as possibilities.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last December voted 3-2 to reject funds to maintain the airport for another 20 years. The last grant the county received to maintain the airport was in 2011. County officials reported that the airport’s costs and flights are increasing but revenue and staff decline, while poor maintenance continues to present a number of problems.

But several opponents to the airport’s closure voiced how the aviation facility serves as a crucial public asset.

“This is a critical transportation resource for the entire Silicon Valley. And the city and the airport and the other business organizations fought to save it,” said John McGowan, a longtime resident of San Jose and aircraft owner. “Is it really viable to have the only portal and reliever airport for one of the 25 largest air carrier airports in the country to be a two hour drive to the south?”

McGowan was a part of an organization in 1996 that fought to save the airport after the Board of Supervisors then tried to de-fund it, adding that “everyone rallied” to keep the airport recognizing there was “no other reliever airport in all of Silicon Valley that can serve as a gateway to the community for small general aviation airplanes.”

But many also voiced concerns about the dire effects the airport has had on East Side residents in part because of the noise and severe airborne lead levels, including Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco who represents the district that the airport is in. She said she removed one of her daughters from a school neighboring the airport because children were being “sprayed with lead.”

“I made that choice many families are unable to make,” added Carrasco. “I understand that this is an inconvenience for those who enjoy the airport where it stands, but for the families that live there it becomes a health hazard for their children.”

Councilmember Maya Esparza agreed, saying that the fight to get rid of the airport has been going on for a “very long time,” since she was a kid.

“I believe that what we’re dealing with today is a direct result of a history of inequity within our city and county,” added Esparza.

Despite the airport not closing for at least another decade — until 2031 — city and county leaders are working together to address the next steps in alleviating concerns of airborne lead levels and managing the potential increase in congestion at neighboring airports. But as many councilmembers pointed out, the San Jose City Council has no decision-making authority to decide on whether the airport stays or goes.

City Council approves a new fee for Diridon Station

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council voted in favor of adopting an ordinance that establishes a new impact fee to support building basic infrastructure such as transportation, streets, sanitary sewers, storm drains, flood control and plazas within the Diridon Station Area.

Khamis was the lone councilmember absent for the vote.

Impact fees are one-time payments that property developers pay to help local governments build vital public facilities, but does not pay for the maintenance of those developments. To build these public facilities, the city identified $75 million worth in initial basic infrastructure for the massive project.

“The city has several alternative impact fee programs to support improvements in other areas,” said director of economic development Kim Walesh at Tuesday’s meeting.

Walesh said the costs were determined by a technical study that assessed the relationship between the new development of “residential, office, retail, and hotel” uses, and the need for the new infrastructure. The economists hired for the study came up with a “fair share allocation of cost” between the developers and the city to determine the cost for each type of infrastructure.

Without the fees, the city would have to fund the investments “some other way,” added Walesh.

Councilmember Raul Peralez added that he would like to see the possibility of a vital public asset such as a fire station or community center, potentially supported by a separate “universal fee” that the council would need to vote on. Councilmember Lan Diep added to that sentiment, saying he would like to see the possibility of laying down “internet fiber” to the area to build a potential future network.

Some officials weighed in that added fees slow down development and potentially prevent other projects from being funded. Compounded with other types of fees, developers may have a more difficult time getting loans, decreasing their profit margins and ultimately “killing a project.”

According to Walesh, for residential properties the city currently has existing fees for “inclusionary housing requirements, park fees, construction taxes, permitting fees, and the existing citywide storm drainage and sanitary sewer connection fees.”

“I know that the infrastructure needs to get built and needs to be paid for,” said Councilmember Pam Foley. “I’m just a little sensitive (about) additional fees and the financing component.”

Davis agreed with Foley, expressing concern about “projects in the pipeline,” that might suffer from these outcomes.

“I share Councilmember Foley’s concern about projects that are in the pipeline not not being able to get funded because of these additional fees,” added Davis. “I think we need to think very hard especially as the market softens about whether we are going to do any exemptions.”

Since approved Tuesday, the new fees will go into effect in 60 days.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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