Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sacramento County approves cargo-friendly Mather plan

Sacramento County Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to expand air cargo operations at Mather Airport, despite widespread opposition from neighboring communities.

Supervisors voted 3-1 for a master plan that calls for $107 million in improvements for the former U.S. Air Force base turned over to the county about 20 years ago. The improvements will bring the airport up to current standards for cargo and general aviation, and include lengthening a runway and adding technology that will make it easier to land in fog.

The plan envisions 2 percent annual growth in cargo traffic at the airport.

Mather Airport generates about as many noise complaints as the county’s three other airports – Sacramento International, Franklin Field and Executive – combined. Critics of the Mather expansion comprised the majority of speakers at Tuesday’s nearly five-hour hearing, citing noise as their primary concern. The county also received nearly 300 letters about the plan, most of them in opposition, including one from the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors.

“I’ve got 5,000 people who are being woke up by noise,” Folsom Mayor Kerri Howell told supervisors.

Supervisors Phil Serna, Don Nottoli and Jimmie Yee voted for the plan, arguing that the county has a duty to develop the property since receiving it from the Air Force following the base’s decommissioning. Other supporters said development at the base is long overdue.

Supervisor Susan Peters did not vote. She has an ownership interest in office buildings and land at Mather Field and has said she will not vote on the master plan because of a potential conflict of interest.

Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, whose district includes Folsom, voted against the plan. She said concern about noise was one reason, but also questioned whether investing in cargo makes business sense, given changes in the industry.

The master plan acknowledged that air cargo has declined dramatically due to increased regulations, gas prices and other industry trends. The plan scaled back some of the earlier projections for cargo growth.

Airport officials also explained that supervisors would have the chance to revisit components of the plan in the future. They will be asked to approve financing for each element.

Critics questioned some of those projects, especially an $800,000 system officials say is needed to help pilots land in fog. That’s because an airport official said that fog causes flight diversions at Mather only six times a year. Howell said such an investment would be a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.

An airport official said UPS has identified the equipment at its top priority for Mather improvements.

The landing equipment also came under fire recently when Folsom and El Dorado County officials learned that the county had purchased the equipment before approving the master plan and a related environmental review.

Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting suggested the county may face a legal challenge over its environmental review, which found that the airport improvements would not lead to a significant increase in noise. They criticized the county for not studying a switch of cargo traffic back to International Airport, where it was handled before Mather was given to the county.

Sacramento County Counsel John Whisenhunt told supervisors that the environmental review meets state law.

Editor's note (Aug. 12): Due to an editor's error, The Bee mistakenly posted a prepared version of this story online before Tuesday's vote based on earlier reporting and initial comments at the meeting. The early version prematurely said supervisors had passed the Mather plan on a 3-1 vote.   


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