Palo Alto Airport is now Palo Alto’s airport.
After nearly seven years of deliberations and negotiations with Santa Clara County, the city quickly approved a transfer agreement that would put the city in control of the small Baylands airport. The county has been operating the airport since 1967, under a 50-year lease that was set to expire in June 2017.
The City Council indicated with its unanimous vote on Monday night that it doesn’t want to wait that long. Its vote came five days after the county’s Board of Supervisors likewise agreed unanimously to transfer the facility to the city ahead of the lease’s expiration.
“I think both parties are delighted with what’s going to transpire,” Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, a former county supervisor, said at Monday’s meeting.
For the county, which manages two other airports, the transfer means that it is no longer in charge of a facility with a dilapidated runway and a history of losing money. For the city, it is a chance to address what many see as the county’s failure to make the necessary repairs and to greatly improve the airport.
The takeover effort has accelerated in the last two years, with the city hiring an airport manager and creating a new enterprise fund for the airport. The city has transferred $1.6 million from the General Fund to the airport fund to date, said Airport Manager Andrew Swanson. City officials estimate that the airport will continue to require subsidies for the next four years before it starts to make money.
“We project in 2018 we will be in the black, and we will be ale to start paying back the loan,” Swanson told the council.
While council members and airport aficionados were delighted about the latest milestone for transfer effort, Kniss cautioned that the city is taking some risk with this move.
“I have some real concerns about it,” Kniss said. “This is not a slam-dunk money maker.”
With 180,000 takeoffs and landings annually, the airport off Embarcadero Road is the third busiest in the region, Swanson said. In the coming months, the city will be working with the community to come up with a local vision for the airport. It will also be negotiating with the State Lands Commission on a new lease for a portion of the airport land, a step toward making the city eligible for a Federal Aviation Administration grant.
The transfer agreement specifies that the city and the county will split the cost of environmental mitigation in the airport and that the county will pay the 10 percent “local share” portion for repaving the runway. The rest of the funding is expected to come from a $610,000 FAA grant.
Members of the airport community said they were excited to finally see the transfer take place. Ralph Britton, president of the Palo Alto Airport, had served on the 2007 task force that concluded that the county isn’t properly maintaining the facility and recommended an early termination of the lease. He noted that the process took far longer than expected and vowed to help make Palo Alto Airport the “best possible airport.”
“That means working with Baylands supporters to make sure Baylands visitors have an improved experience, as well as the people who work in the airport,” Britton said. “We’re anxious to work with the Baylands community to make sure developments are to everyone’s benefit.”
Association Vice President Bob Lenox said he looks forward “to bringing Palo Alto into the 21st century” and making it a signature facility for the community.
“This has been a long and arduous process and I want to give our minister without a portfolio a portfolio — an airport — as soon as possible,” Lenox said, referring to Swanson.