Santa Clara County is moving forward with closing the Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose, county lawmakers decided Tuesday after hundreds of pleas from the community to use the land for affordable housing and other community needs.
The supervisors voted 4-1 to begin preparing for a potential airport closure and begin the planning process for repurposing the land. Next steps would include more community discussion to identify how to develop the land.
Supervisor Mike Wasserman was the lone dissenting vote.
The decision Tuesday opens the door for the county to use the 180 acres of airport land for future housing, recreation areas, community centers, office space, retail space and anything else the community might want.
County supervisors took the first step to close the airport two years ago when they voted to stop accepting Federal Aviation Administration grants for Reid-Hillview.
The county’s legal commitments, including the acceptance of previous FAA loans, means it cannot close the airport until 2031. Still, the vote Tuesday gets the ball rolling and the supervisors want to get a head start on planning.
The issue was hotly debated in the days leading up to the board’s final vote. Advocates for getting rid of the airport complained about noise and lead pollution. They said the site could be used for affordable housing in the East Side and other community needs.
San Jose Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas, Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza gathered in front of the airport a day before the vote to urge county supervisors to shutter it.
“To continue to support the operation of this airport is to knowingly endanger the development, the health, and the potentially long-lasting and permanent damaging impacts that it has on our children,” Carrasco said. “The time is now to close and relocate this airport to another existing location.”
A majority of residents spoke in favor of using the land for something other than an airport during nearly four hours of public comment Tuesday.
“The time to close Reid-Hillview Airport has come,” said Salvador “Chava” Bustamante, executive director of Latinos United for a New America. “This (airport) is not only an environmental justice issue, but also a huge land use mistake. This 180 acres of publicly owned land could be put to better use.”
But some people said the airport serves an important purpose by absorbing small plane traffic that would otherwise clog the Mineta International Airport. The airport is also used for emergency response, including during the destructive SCU Lightning Complex blaze earlier this year.
An EPA study released earlier this year used Reid-Hillview Airport as a model for other, similarly sized general aviation airports across the country to study lead concentrations in the air at and around these sites.
According to the EPA models, Reid-Hillview contributes to lead levels that exceed the limits set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS).
“Emissions of lead from aircraft operating on leaded aviation gasoline (avgas) are the largest source of lead released into the atmosphere in the US, accounting for 62% of lead (456 tons) in the 2014 National Emissions Inventory (NEI),” the EPA report states.
Some speakers said they had learned to fly at the 80-year-old airport while other speakers were aviation students at San Jose State University and argued there was value in job training programs hosted at Reid-Hillview.
“Reid-Hillview is a critical reliever airport for San Jose International airport,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman. “Reid-Hillview is a critical asset that, once gone, can never be replaced. San Jose International has no capacity to expand, yet our region’s population continues to grow,” Supervisor Wasserman said. “Let’s identify the problems (with the airport) and work to fix them.”
Despite the nod to move forward with redeveloping the land, the county must grapple with a lawsuit over the airport closure.
San Jose attorney Jim McManis filed a lawsuit alleging the county’s wasted $400,000 in taxpayer dollars to study alternative uses for the airport property. It also alleges the county has allowed the airport to deteriorate, creating multiple safety hazards.
But those who want to see the airport gone are undeterred.
“I understand that others do not want to lose access to their hobby location and other programs, but think of the people who were there before you arrived, and that are there after you leave,” said resident Alex Cardenas. “The airport is in a residential area and has a lot of schools, and people deal with the pollution day after day, not just lead pollution from the fuel but noise pollution as well. So why are these minority communities targeted?”
Supervisors plan to take up the topic again early next year, when another report is due back to supervisors on lead levels around the airport site. The board will likely tackle the issue of mitigating lead dangers at the airport before any further development discussion.