County votes to expand airport

The San Martin Airport is home to an aviation history museum, which features a full-scale replica of the Wright Brothers historic plane (with dummy pilot), shown here with museum docent Ed Ferner. Credit: Robert Eliason

Over the next decade, the skies above San Martin are likely to see steady and dramatic increases in light-plane traffic.

A 3-2 decision by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Dec. 4 authorized a long-term plan to close the Reid-Hillview Airport in east San Jose and make substantial investments in upgrading and expanding the San Martin Airport, 24 miles south. Mike Wasserman, the supervisor who represents San Martin and the South County, including Morgan Hill and Gilroy, joined Board President Joe Simitian, who represents northwest Santa Clara County, in voting against the proposal. Supervisors Dave Cortese, Cindy Chavez and Ken Yeager all voted for the airport consolidation plan.

The supervisors’ decision begins a long process “to determine the futures of both airports, the health and safety of residents in the surrounding areas and the use of federal and local funds,” according to the county statement.

The Reid-Hillview Airport would continue to operate until at least 2031, when federal grants expire, freeing up the 180 acres of land for non-aviation uses.

The plan also would begin exploring a shift of San Jose State University’s aviation program from Reid-Hillview to San Martin.

The board directed county staff to develop detailed plans for improving and expanding the San Martin Airport while negotiating leases at Reid-Hillview Airport to make land available for future commercial development.

“The potential revenue for the county in considering alternative uses for Reid-Hillview is too significant to ignore,” said Supervisor Dave Cortese. “But with this option, operations can continue at Reid-Hillview as we look at ways to improve the San Martin Airport.”

One impact of the airport consolidation plan, in addition to upgrades to physical facilities and runways, would be a significant increase in air traffic of the mosty small, privately owned piston-propellor planes and helicopters.

Airnav.com reported an average of 91 flights per day in and out of San Martin in 2017-2018. The website reported that Reid-Hillview had 452 average daily flights per day in the same period.

San Martin has two runways, Reid Hillview, four, according to the website.

The county reported that general aviation trends show piston-propeller aircraft use to be on the decline in general, and at Reid-Hillview in particular. In 2006, Reid-Hillview housed 687 aircraft, compared to 478 today. In that same period, aircraft at the San Martin Airport has grown from 115 to 150.

The supervisors’ decision directed staff to:

  • Approve a policy statement that the county will not apply for Airport Improvement Program grants for Reid-Hillview Airport and will make improvements funded by the general fund that are required to operate Reid-Hillview safely
  • Direct the county executive to accept $1 million in FAA entitlement funding related to the airfield repaving project at San Martin Airport
  • Direct the county executive to apply for property releases at Reid-Hillview Airport from the FAA
  • Invite the City of San Jose to engage within the next two years in joint planning for both Reid-Hillview and the Eastridge areas, including alternative uses of Reid-Hillview after 2031
  • Begin a transparent community engagement process that considers consolidation of aviation operations and the 2006 master plan for the San Martin Airport
  • Develop a plan to implement improvements to ensure adequate traffic flow and safety on East San Martin Avenue and Highway 101 and adjacent roadways
  • Establish a plan to implement the improvements at the San Martin Airport, including funding from the General Fund and FAA funds
  • Direct the county executive to recommend a plan to analyze and address any concerns regarding airborne lead and other health concerns
  • Direct staff to reach out to San Jose State University to negotiate a possible accommodation for the university’s aviation program at the San Martin Airport
  • Direct staff to reach out to the County’s Office of Emergency Services to consider all safety options
  • In partnership with the aviation community, look at the use of only unleaded fuel at the airports.

In 2006, the board approved a master plan for the San Martin Airport that outlines improvements and expansion to consolidate general aviation operations the airport. This plan may need to be modified if operations shift from Reid-Hillview to San Martin.

“I don’t think it’s wise to accept another federal grant to improve Reid-Hillview and tie up the land for aviation use only in perpetuity,” Cortese said. “This option gives us time to work with the aviation community, neighbors and business owners and the City of San Jose to determine the best use of the land occupied by Reid-Hillview and the area surrounding the San Martin Airport.”

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