SANTA ROSA -- The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an $84 million upgrade to Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport that will enhance safety, add a new passenger terminal, provide longer runways and allow mid-sized commercial jets to land at the airport.
After four and a half hours of public comment and board discussion, the supervisors voted 5-0 to certify the project environmental impact report, amendments to the airport master plan and the county general plan. The matter will come back to the board Jan. 24 to consider adding a health and noise impact assessment. The cost of that study will be determined at that time.
The project, which now must be approved by federal officials, calls for extending the main runway by 885 feet to 6,000 feet and a second runway by 200 feet to 5,002 feet. That would in turn allow for larger and more frequent commercial aircraft to land and depart from the county, which proponents say could ease the reliance on San Francisco and Oakland airports while boosting the local economy.
Business representatives -- from the North Bay Leadership Council to the North Coast Builders Exchange, among many others -- widely hailed the project as an economic boost that could draw visitors from a wider swath of the country.
"The approval is important to the continued success and growth in Sonoma County," said Brad Calkins, executive director of the Santa Rosa Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that tourism is a vital sector to the economy that would likely benefit.
The county's general plan allows for up to 21 commercial flights per day by the year 2030, but that measure is unattainable with the current runway and needed repairs. The safety upgrades would cost about $42 million, while the remainder of the price tag would go toward improvements to the control tower, the new passenger terminal and cargo space. Timing of the latter would depend on attracting more airlines.
Approximately 95 percent of the improvements would be financed by federal aviation grants, according to Jon Stout, manager of the airport and a chief proponent of the project that is years in the making.
The airport's only carrier is Horizon Air, the sister carrier for Alaska Air, which operates five flights a day to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland and Seattle from Santa Rosa. In 2011, passenger volume at the airport reached an all-time high and was up by 9.8 percent from the previous year.
With the larger runways, airport officials said more carriers would be inclined to stop in Santa Rosa, though none have yet committed. Possible new destinations include Denver, for which the county has received a $650,000 grant to support services to that hub, San Diego, a third flight to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and others, according to airport staff.
Concerns have been raised regarding the plan, however, with some critics saying the expansion would negatively impact air and water quality while increasing noise pollution. A contingent of Windsor residents opposed to the project told the board that the town of about 26,000 would bare the brunt of any negative impacts of the project, particularity an increase in noise. Other Windsor residents, including Mayor Debra Fudge, were supportive of the safety upgrades but expressed a need for carefully mitigating the impact of noise and construction.