Like an airplane owner who doesn't know how to fly, the City of Palo Alto has an airport but doesn't know how to manage it. It's left that to Santa Clara County for the last 40 years.
Yet in three to 10 years, the city will have its hands on the controls of its 100-acre airport, an operation the county is ready give up. What happens then is anyone's guess.
The dilemma divided the Finance Committee 2-2 Tuesday evening. Councilman Jack Morton and Vice Mayor Larry Klein concurred with a recommendation by city staff to initiate a "gradual, 'open-eyed' transition to city airport oversight" within three years.
"The important thing, I think, is that you start moving forward now and don't just let things drift because there's a real cost," Klein said.
But Councilman Bern Beecham said he thought the city should research the cost of operating the airport rather than working with the county immediately to terminate the county's lease, which is set to expire in 2017.
And for Councilwoman Dena Mossar, the debate is practically moot <0x2014> the entire area will be underwater soon.
"We know enough about global warming to understand those properties east of (Highway) 101 will be underwater within 50 years," Mossar said. "It's not controversial."
The deadlock sends the issue on to the full nine-member City Council, with no recommendation from the committee.
The county has deemed the bustling airport at the end of Embarcadero Road too costly and in December 2006 announced that it plans to terminate the contract in 2017, or before.
In response, then-Mayor Judy Kleinberg assembled an 18-member body, the Palo Alto Airport Working Group (PAAWG), of airport constituencies to guide decision makers.
It released a report in April calling for Palo Alto to negotiate an early end to the lease, appoint an interim airport manager and search for a non-profit to manage the airport on a longer term. It also concluded the airport was an asset to the city and would not require city subsidies.
As PAAWG was wrapping up its work, the city hired airport consultant R. Austin Wiswell, former head of Caltrans' Division of Aeronautics. Wiswell's two reports guided the committee's discussion Tuesday.
In the first report, dated June 14, Wiswell explains that owning an airport is a significant responsibility. Airports must comply with numerous federal and state regulations, remain financially viable and minimize the inherent risks of airplane operation. For example, the pavement must be inspected daily, Wiswell wrote.
His second report, dated July 6, reviews the PAAWG report, which Wiswell called "long on optimism and naiveté, but that is not condemning of the effort."
Wiswell said although the city should work toward taking control of the airport, it needs to decide: "What does the city want the airport to be?"
He said the airport's greatest value is as a transportation facility that allows business people, tourists and others access into and out of Palo Alto. Emergency support and disaster availability are also helpful, but pilot training and recreational flying services are less important, Wiswell wrote.
The city should hire an experienced professional to study the economic viability and value of the airport, he wrote, disagreeing with the rosy picture painted by PAAWG.
In addition, Wiswell said the airport is constrained by the Baylands Master Plan, which limits the amount of development near the Bay.
He called for an "in-depth, no holds barred rethink of the city's Baylands Master Plan" to allow for additional hangars and the relocation of the terminal building.
City staff also pointed out the future of San Francisquito Creek and bay flood projects, expected to be decided in 2010 by the Army Corps of Engineers, could also have a significant effect on the airport.
Wiswell cautioned that "being an airport manager … is much more than watching airplanes drone by the window or having morning coffee with pilot friends each day."
The PAAWG report is available at: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/knowzone/agendas/airport.asp. The staff report from Tuesday's meeting is at: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=9175. The Wiswell documents are available in the City Clerk's office, 7th floor, 250 Hamilton Ave.
(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at email@example.com.)