Santa Clara County is being sued over its plans to close an East San Jose airport to build much-needed housing — but the complaint alleges federal officials say the county can’t do that, and shutting down Reid-Hillview Airport would be a disaster for the Bay Area, which relies on the airport for emergency operations and to move its smaller, slower aircraft.
Last December the Board of Supervisors voted against accepting an airport improvement grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain Reid-Hillview, on the assumption that refusing the federal money would allow the county to end its obligation to operate the airport until 2031. Every time the county takes FAA money for the airport improvements, it extends that obligation for 20 years, and the last grant was accepted in 2011.
Instead, county lawmakers decided to spend $400,000 on a study to determine how best to use that land when its obligation ends in a little more than a decade. The airport opened in 1939 and had a peak of 395,000 take-offs and landings in 1978 that had dwindled to 163,000 in 2017. In the four decades between, the county accepted federal grant money to maintain and operate the airport even as it considered alternative uses for the land on more than one occasion.
But the FAA says the county is on the hook to run the airport whether it takes the money or not, according to a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors in October.
“We appreciate the county’s interest in finding adequate locations to build low income housing, however, we ask the board to also consider the adverse impacts of closing RHV,” FAA regional airports director, Mike McClardy, wrote in the letter. “RHV is part of a system of airports that support the economic viability of the county. Closing RHV will force aviation users accounting for about 165,000 annual operations to relocate to other airports in the area.”
And now prominent downtown attorney Jim McManis is suing the county to stop Reid-Hillview’s closure, which he contends is illegal, and to force the county to start maintaining the regional airport and not waste taxpayer dollars on the six-figure study.
The suit also claims Santa Clara County agreed to keep operating the airport “in perpetuity” after accepting another FAA grant to purchase land. And whether or not leaders stop taking federal money for the airport, McManis claims the assurances of the old grants remain and the airport cannot legally be shuttered.
“We are hoping to get a court order to compel the county to recognize its legal obligations to stop wasting taxpayer money on some futile study and ideally to start doing what they should do with respect to the airport,” said McManis, who filed the suit on Thursday in Santa Clara County Superior Court. “We’re not asking for damages. We’re simply saying everybody has told you and made a request that they do the right thing.”
McManis also claims the county failed to install proper lighting, maintain taxi-way markings and pavement projects — in one case paving around the aircraft — in violation of FAA standards and safety obligations.
But County Counsel James Williams told San José Spotlight the lawsuit is “meritless” and “absurd.” The goal of the lawsuit is to “pre-empt” any discussion by the Board of Supervisors about what to do with land the county owns, he said.
“It is always regrettable when people take what should be a policy discussion and turn it into a lawsuit,” Williams said.
Santa Clara County Airports Commission Chairman John Carr said it is not too late for the board to consider keeping the airport open, which he believes “serves a critical role in emergency and disaster relief operations,” throughout the Bay Area.”
“During Loma Prieta, it was Reid-Hillview that flew the food and resources to Watsonville because Highway 17 was closed,” he said. “When PG&E had their power outage, where do you think they staged their helicopters? Right here at Reid-Hillview. It’s rather stunning they would even think about closing it. Once you get rid of an airport, it’s not coming back.”
The commissioner also lamented that spending six figures to study alternative uses for the land makes no sense when the soonest Santa Clara County could close it — if it is at all legal — would be 2031, after the 20 year window on the improvement grant expires.
“This is a no brainer. Why is the county using taxpayer monies to explore an issue that is 12 years in the future?” Carr said. “How relevant will the data be in 2031? This is a political football and its all about developers getting into the 180 acres of land at Reid-Hillview.”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman agreed.
“Reid-Hillview is a critical daily ‘reliever airport’ and actually has more (take-offs and landings) than San Jose Mineta Airport,” Wasserman said. “Also, it is an irreplaceable asset to have for emergency aircraft to use, if needed.”
But proponents of the airport closure, including former county supervisor Blanca Alvarado, say the land would be much better utilized for low-income housing.
Alvarado said in an interview Tuesday that she’s been fighting to close the airport for 40 years — citing quality-of-life concerns from nearby residents, including noise and air pollution. Alvarado said the airport has been “obtrusive and obnoxious” to the neighborhood for decades.
Those are still concerns, she said, but added that finding new use for the site, including affordable housing, has become critical amid Silicon Valley’s “obscene” housing crisis. She also said aircraft from Reid-Hillview can easily be moved to San Martin Airport.
“The people who are pushing to keep it open are living in the past,” Alvarado said. “It’s time for them to let go and give us an opportunity to do something better.”
Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.
FAA Letter to Joe Simitian re Reid-Hillview Airport.doc (1)