Opinion: Scottsdale Airport Master Plan update deserves scrutiny

The value of long-range planning documents can be judged as much by what they don’t say, as by what they do say; and their guidance is only as good as the intentions of those who would utilize them to make decisions.

John Washington

John Washington

What the Scottsdale Airport Master Plan does not explicitly state is that the ultimate decision makers for the future of Scottsdale Airport are the members of the Scottsdale City Council, more specifically the council majority.

This group — including Mayor Jim Lane, Virginia Korte, Suzanne Klapp, and newly re-elected council member Linda Milhaven — have a history of decision-making that is fundamentally contrary to Scottsdale’s voter-ratified master policy document: The 2001 General Plan.

David Smith and Kathy Littlefield have yet to vote on any long-range planning. If the mayor and council majority are going to thwart the master policy document, what value is provided by any subservient planning document?

Ignoring that obvious history and assuming decision-makers’ best intentions, the language of the draft Airport Master Plan is so passive and ambivalent that it is hard to see how it would provide effective filtering for any specific airport-related decision.

For example, the introduction says that the AMP will be reflective of the goals and visions of the surrounding area, especially those related to quality of life, business and development, and land use.

How does that “reflective” approach play out in practice? Very badly, as “reflected” in the city council’s recent decisions to rezone several parcels in the Airpark to entitle high-density housing projects, one of them exactly at a reporting point for inbound helicopter arrivals!

In approving these high-density housing projects, Mayor Lane and the council majority ignored the General Plan, input of residents, and the council’s own appointed experts on the Scottsdale Airport Advisory Commission.

Not only that, but when (as a commissioner) I asked the FAA to review these decisions, Mayor Lane called for — and the council majority approved — firing me from the commission.

For the first time in the history of Scottsdale, a city commissioner was fired for disagreeing with the actions of the council. Of course, that ensures that remaining and subsequent commissioners toe-the-line, and that the council will get only the advice that supports their pre-determined decisions.

Every city planner worth his or her title is familiar with the problems being experienced by the Santa Monica Airport and other municipal airports around the country.

Residential encroachment (and subsequent resident noise complaints) threaten or result in closing those airports at the rate of about one per week. Residential encroachment is a result of only one thing: Poor long-range planning decisions, driven by political pressure and funded by campaign contributions from zoning attorneys and developers.

The Scottsdale Airpark was set up as a visionary buffer between the high-intensity aviation-related land uses, and surrounding residential areas. It also contains the only industrial-zoned land within the city. How much sense does it make to entitle residential uses in this area, in fact as close as the length of the runway away from the runway? The Airpark is mentioned in the AMP almost as an afterthought.

I believe that taxpayer-owned and taxpayer-funded — in large part via federal grants which are frequently overlooked as taxpayer contributions — Scottsdale Airport and the surrounding Airpark are among the most valuable assets the city has.

Even though the majority of our citizens will never use the Airport, these assets must be protected for the economic impact they have on our city.

Many regional, national, and international corporations have their headquarters (and exec’s homes) in Scottsdale in-part because of their ability to move their executives through Scottsdale Airport. Many of our most well-heeled tourists come to Scottsdale via private aircraft landing at Scottsdale Airport.

And, attendees of our signature events — golf tournaments, car auctions, equestrian events, and sports events — fill the airport ramp with billions of dollars’ worth of aircraft, not to mention tax contributions via hotel rooms, car rentals, and purchases.

On the other hand, the draft AMP does a poor job addressing the historical bias of Scottsdale Airport in favor of jet aircraft, and against the more traditional piston-engine general aviation operations. This bias is found in many aspects of airport operations, including for example the highest piston-engine fuel costs in the Valley and no self-serve option.

No one I know wants Scottsdale Airport to become a hub for intensive, large-scale training operations. We’ve dabbled in some of that before, experiencing a lot of traffic and of course noise complaints. However, if Scottsdale really wants to be on the cutting edge of business development, the AMP should and must embrace the fact that many owners of small-and-growing companies fly themselves in high-end piston-engine aircraft.

That is an important demographic to which Scottsdale’s “economic development professionals” say they want to appeal, but they’ll go elsewhere if they encounter the widespread perception that Scottsdale Airport doesn’t want them.

Editor’s note: Mr. Washington is a Scottsdale resident and editor of the Scottsdale Trails blog

Mr. Washington is a local community advocate and editor of Scottsdaletrails.com

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