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Carlsbad zoning updates solidify local control over airport

CARLSBAD — The city will have the final word on the county’s airport expansion plans after adopting a series of code amendments on April 23, drawing a bright line under local control of McClellan-Palomar Airport.

The code amendments require the county, which is seeking to increase the airport’s capacity by extending the runway, to first request the city’s permission. 

The Citizens for a Friendly Airport (C4FA) asked the city to reintroduce the amendments earlier this year. The amendments were previously part of a settlement agreement between the city and the county in 2019.

First opened in 1959, the McClellan-Palomar Airport is owned and operated by the County of San Diego as a single-runway airport meant to replace the former Del Mar Airport.

Carlsbad annexed the airport in 1978. 

Today, the airport has around 300 aircraft based there and accommodates 140,000 takeoffs and landings per year. Planes utilizing the airport range in size from smaller propeller aircraft to corporate and commercial business jets holding up to 20 passengers. 

The airport’s current runway is 4,897 feet, though the county has sought to extend that length for some time to allow for a larger fleet of business jets and larger aircraft to use the airport.

The airport’s original 1997 master plan projected that the airport would have 610 based aircraft and 260,000 annual takeoffs by 2015 – nearly twice the amount it still serves nine years later – and would need several improvements in order to accommodate that amount.

The county began work on the McClellan-Palomar Airport Master Plan Update in 2014, which would expand the airport’s capacity. After the Board of Supervisors adopted the master plan update in 2018, C4FA and the city sued the county – opposing the county’s proposed 800-foot runway extension. 

In 2021, the Superior Court concluded that the master plan update’s final program environmental impact report’s noise analysis was inadequate and required the county to obtain an amendment to the CUP before changing the airport’s design standards.

Because of this, the city terminated its 2019 settlement agreement with the county. In January, C4FA reached out to the city with the hopes of reintroducing zoning code amendments that were withdrawn as conditions of the settlement agreement. The group also requested a General Plan amendment to clarify further the city’s policy for new or expanded airport uses.

Specifically, the amendments include defining the “airport” use and “airport expansion,” and prohibits all airport uses in zones outside of the airport’s boundaries.

“The city of Carlsbad has local control of land use at the airport. That was part of our annexation agreement,” said Vickey Syage, president of C4FA. “That got lost along the years, and it was reaffirmed by the courts from C4FA’s litigation.”

Over the years, many residents have been concerned about potential noise and other quality-of-life impacts from the airport.

“What a lot of this comes down to is a general fear that Palomar (airport) could turn into a John Wayne miniature airport,” said Gary Gonsalves, referring to the international John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Gonsalves noted that many commuter airlines won’t fly into an airport that is under 5,000 feet. 

The county completed additional noise analyses and approved the final master plan update in 2021, which proposes to extend the runway by 200 feet with a maximum 900-foot extension option at some point in the future, contingent upon a CUP. 

According to staff, the planning division will work with the city attorney’s office to prepare the necessary documents to update the zoning code and eventually bring them back for the council’s final approval. 

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