Within three years, the City of Palo Alto could be operating its own airport, the City Council voted 5-3 Tuesday night. Or maybe not.
Four council members -- Judy Kleinberg, Peter Drekmeier, John Barton and Jack Morton -- supported Vice Mayor Larry Klein's motion to begin immediate negotiations to end the lease with Santa Clara County, which has operated the city-owned airport for four decades. Councilwoman Dena Mossar was absent, although as a Finance Committee member she had voted against assuming early control.
The county currently operates the 103-acre airport under a 50-year lease that expires in 2017. Last December, county officials said they would not renew the lease after 2017 and would curtail all non-essential maintenance.
In response, the city formed the Palo Alto Airport Working Group (PAAWG), which met for six months and presented a final report in June urging the city to terminate the lease before 2017.
Tuesday night's discussion centered on Palo Alto's role as an airport owner.
Aircraft broker Larry Shapiro urged the community to switch its terminology -- rather than "the" airport it is "our" airport, he said.
Klein said Shapiro's point is a good one.
"This is our airport. The county has said it wants out," Klein said. "I think we would not be good custodians of our property if we let it sit there for 10 years."
"We own this airport," Morton said repeatedly. "The decision isn't, 'Do nothing.'"
But other council members were less enthusiastic.
Barton voted to begin the transfer of operations but added he still has questions whether operating an airport that uses 103-acres of valuable land is the city's best alternative.
Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto said she would like to know the flood-control plans for San Francisquito Creek before making commitments to operate the airport.
And Councilman Bern Beecham cautioned that the city doesn't have enough information about the airport's finances or operations at this point to make an informed policy decision.
"Why (is the county) turning it over to us?" Beecham asked. "The county isn't stupid. They have far more experience than we do running an airport."
Bob Lenox, a member of the Santa Clara County Airport Commission, said he thought the airport wasn't financially viable for the county because of its "incredibly high" overhead and Palo Alto's restrictions on further development at the airport that could increase revenues.
Built in 1935, the airport has a single runway and is base for more than 357 planes.
City Manager Frank Benest and Administrative Services Director Carl Yeats said that city staff would develop a work plan and cost estimates to present to the council at a future meeting.