Conflicts arise between possible flight path restrictions and General Plan
Truckee’s ongoing General Plan update is set to clash with another plan in the works – the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan. At stake for the town are a potential community center, certain uses of the railyard site and the expansion of Tahoe Forest Hospital.
However, the debate is not just over which plan will rule – state law requires the General Plan to conform to the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan (CLUP), but it also allows the Truckee Town Council to overrule the commission that decides the CLUP.
The question is: What type and amount of development is safe around a growing airport? Town officials have a further question: Should airport traffic increase at the expense of the town’s ability to develop downtown – the very heart of its community?
“I still think that this plan (the CLUP) was developed as if there was nothing on the ground underneath it,” said Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook. “It doesn’t make sense to prohibit development that is surrounded by development.”
The problem is very simple. The airport, although technically outside of Truckee limits, sits right alongside Truckee with its runways pointing toward downtown, the railyard site and the “commercial triangle,” located where state Routes 89 north and 267 meet. The town identifies these sites as priorities, keeping with the philosophy of infill development – building within already developed areas. Efforts to develop the railyard site as an extension of downtown have been going on for more than 10 years.
But as the town develops, the airport grows. Given the location of the airport, a clash between development plans and airport operations was inevitable. Certain development, like Planned Community 3 off of Brockway Road, has already had its planning affected by airport influence zones (areas with development restrictions based on proximity to the airport).
Now the discord takes on broader terms, in the form of General Plan and CLUP conflicts.
The General Plan is the town’s guiding document for long-term, physical development. By taking a 20-year approach to planning, it assures that growth meets town goals. A big part of the General Plan is assigning land use designations to specific sites, as it has with the many of the sites within the airport influence zone. The updated General Plan, which must comply with the CLUP, is set for completion this summer.
The CLUP is the nexus between the town’s General Plan and the airport’s Master Plan – a way to govern land use surrounding the airport so that future development and future airport operations are compatible. The update to the 1986 CLUP is expected to move forward concurrently with Truckee’s General Plan.
The draft CLUP establishes zones that have varying degrees of restriction on development, depending on how close they are to the end of the runways. The major restraint on the community center site, a possible performing arts center and movie theater downtown, is a 300-person limit on the number of people allowed to gather at one specific site in the large zone D. This would preclude the creation of any sizable community center, performing arts center or theater near downtown.
Each of these proposals can seek site-specific exceptions from the Auburn-based Airport Land Use Commission; however, if there are safety concerns in the 20-year projection, it is unlikely the commission would grant such an exception.
Complicating the matter further, the airport operations data is fuzzy. The planners developing the CLUP are using a number developed by Caltrans – 48,000 – to estimate the amount of yearly aircraft movement (a takeoff or landing). Airport staff currently record approximately 17,000 operations each year, although they admit that they do not have the staff to record each operation, and the number is low. The planners use the 48,000 number and project 120,000 yearly operations within the next 20 years. This projection drives the noise contours and safety zones that result in development restrictions.
CLUP planners say that the 120,000 operations projection was based on data from the Airport Master Plan adopted in 1998. Airport officials say they cannot see airport operations topping 70,000 in the next 20 years.
“The projection of the forecast is not as critical as looking at what number will be reached in the future,” said Senior Airport Planner Ken Brody. “You don’t want to anticipate 70,000 [operations] and have the airport grow to 120,000. You don’t want to underestimate.”
Working with 20-year projections is always an imprecise science, said Betty Riley, president of the Sierra Planning Organization, which oversees the CLUP.
“Projections are just that – they are guesses,” Riley said.
Truckee Vice Mayor Craig Threshie said that the Airport Master Plan should be revisited, now that the draft CLUP shows the incompatibility of projected airport operations and town planning priorities.
“I don’t think that it is right to manipulate the CLUP,” Threshie said. “I think that we need to go back to the original source of the problem – the Airport Master Plan.”
When the Airport Master Plan was done in 1998, there was no CLUP to illustrate the ramifications of the plan on Truckee, said Threshie.
“The Airport Master Plan drives the results of the CLUP. The CLUP is driving land use planning in the most valuable areas of town – our downtown,” Threshie said. “We’re allowing an Airport Master Plan to dictate what we can and can’t do. I think that is backwards.
“Hopefully the airport board of directors will listen to the community and take it upon themselves to [revisit the Airport Master Plan],” Threshie said. “I think that it is wrong for the town to downzone and not use crucial properties at the expense of larger … airport use.”
Meetings on the draft CLUP have been heated, illustrating the increasing frustration of certain airport-area residents over what they feel is an expanding airport’s unresponsiveness to their noise concerns. While the Airport Land Use Commission has no control over existing noise concerns or airport operations, residents are voicing general concern over the direction of the airport at the meetings.
Ponderosa Ranchos resident Gaylan Larson said that the town should be able to plan for a community center, but safety and noise concerns must be addressed by limiting airport growth.
“Our position is that those should be built, but they shouldn’t be built illegally or by changing the rules. They should be built by restricting airport growth,” he said.
Larson, who, along with his wife Lynne, bought a home near the airport 10 years ago, said the airport should raise fees for itinerant aircraft to a point that discourages them from flying into Truckee.
“The jet traffic has increased dramatically. It’s not like 10 or 20 percent … it’s like six times,” Larson said. “Who could have anticipated all of the fractional jets?”
Airport data shows that although jet traffic elicits many complaints, it only represents 9 percent of the airport’s traffic. That is expected to rise to 14 percent during the life of the CLUP.
“I think what the airport ought to be saying is: We don’t want a Martis Valley International Airport here,” Lynne Larson said.
Airport officials counter these complaints by highlighting the benefits of the airport as an economic generator for the town. As a town situated among ski resorts, the tourist economy of the community relies on access, they say.
Much has been made of the airport driving down real estate because of noise concerns, but the airport also raises property values by attracting high-end developments, like Lahontan, and the people who live in them, who are attracted to the particular location because of easy air access, said Airport Assistant General Manager Michael Scott.
Also, airport officials emphasize their noise abatement procedures, which include outlining the flight paths that least impact residential developments. As far as increased traffic, the airport has no authority to deny a plane the right to land at the airport. They have discussed cutting airport services during the evening and raising fees to manage aircraft traffic.
Anyone taking action to restrict airport operations needs to look at what consequences that will have on the community, said Scott.
“We can implement a curfew or say no jets are coming in here again, but what will be the outcome?” Scott asked.
Scott urged the governmental entities involved to adopt the CLUP, as it represents the best data on safety and noise concerns.
“This does represent a compendium of experience, representing aviation information from across the nation,” he said.
The next Airport Land Use Commission is scheduled for April 7 in Auburn. No decisions will be made at that meeting. The next public hearing meeting will likely be held in Truckee in June, Riley said.
Riley emphasized that the process has been extensive – already in progress for one year – and that there will be extended additional public involvement before a decision is made.
“I think part of the hysteria is people think this is a done deal,” Riley said.
Truckee planning officials said that a CLUP will only be effective if it is supported by all of the surrounding governmental entities, and it will pay off to take the time to develop a plan that can be agreed on.
“I think it benefits everyone to slow down and do it thoughtfully,” said Lashbrook.
For more information on airport and General Plan issues, check out the archive at http://www.sierrasun.com.