EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated from its initial publication to correct a mischaracterization of George Sandy’s remarks at the Tehachapi City Council meeting of Feb. 19. We apologize for the editing errors that resulted in a distortion of Mr. Sandy’s statement before the council.
The Tehachapi City Council held a public hearing at which they denied Kenneth Hetge's appeal of the Planning Commissions approval of the Architectural Design and Site Plan Revision 1 for the construction of a 72 room, three story, non-franchise hotel in Capital Hills at its Feb. 19 meeting.
All council members were present but Council member Mary Lou Vachon recused herself as she felt she may have a conflict of interest related to the subject. City Attorney Tom Schroeter indicated there was no conflict but Vachon perceived there may be one and left the room.
Community Development Director, David James, presented a staff report pointing out the location of the proposed hotel was found to be compatible and and consistent with the underlying zoning designation, the general plan, the Capital Hills Specific Plan, the architectural design criteria the big box ordinance and the Airport Compatibility Plan.
“The subject site is split into two compatibility zones B1 and the dominate Zone D,” James said. “In Compatibility Zone B1, hotels and motels are defined in the compatibility plan as not acceptable in the B1 zone, but no such restriction is placed on the D zone. The issue before you this evening is the hotel structure in and of it self is located entirely with in the ‘D’ zone. The fact that a portion of the site is in the B1 is not the issue as long as the structure is entirely with in the D zone.”
Hetge gave a presentation lasting about 15 minutes related to potential risks he sees with locating the hotel at the proposed location.
One of the issues was the hotel being in the flight path of what local pilots call the “notch,” an area between the hills just north of a straight out departure that pilots tend to fly over if headed toward the San Joaquin Valley from the airport.
“The hotel is in an area that is overflown at low altitudes by departing aircraft and is in a prime location for pilots needing an emergency landing site,” Hetge said, adding that Tehachapi Airport traffic patterns can be random.
Most pilots normally fly a standard pattern for non-towered airports, he said. However, a pattern is not mandatory. Depending upon the direction from which the flight is coming, a pilot may choose to make a base entry or straight in approach to landing.
He continued, quoting from the Caltrans Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan Handbook, “The existence of standard patterns tends to give people who are not pilots the impression that aircraft follow well-defined highways in the sky. The reality is that considerable variation occurs in how pilots fly traffic patterns. This variation is expected and normal."
Hetge concluded his presentation saying, The City of Tehachapi and the City Council must force the creation of a land use type commission to oversee the successful growth of our community in companionship with the airport as mandated by the PUC. City Council must also adopt a resolution to update the ALUPC for Tehachapi Public safety is paramount and must be held in the highest regard.
Mayor Smith ask if he had adequate time for his presentation. He replied, “Yes, Mayor, I greatly appreciate the time.”
Mayor Smith offered the developer Terry Delamater of the project an opportunity to speak, however he chose not to speak at the hearing replying “ I am here and I have no comment.”
The floor was then opened for audience comments. Nine pilots spoke in favor of of Hetge's appeal, citing various incidents of aircraft crashes in other locations and other airport landing and take off related issues.
Not all local pilots agreed with Hetge’s position, however.
"I've been a pilot all my life," said George Sandy, "I commend Mr. Hetge for doing his homework. He's a staunch supporter of aviation, but I think the general public can even recognize that there's been some scare tactics here tonight."
Sandy went on to say that he can't recollect anyone being killed on the airport or in the immediate vicinity.
"I know there's been accidents, almost without question caused by pilot error," he said. "Pilot error is not a question here tonight, but pilot techniques are."
As explained by Airport Manager Tom Glasgow at a earlier meeting of the Tehachapi Airport Commission, the FAA recommended pattern for taking off from the airport is to head left and make a circle above town before heading north.
Sandy said this was the technique recommended when he first visited Tehachapi Airport more than two decades ago.
“I looked out there and that's obviously the way to go. Level to descending terrain.”
In discussing pilot techniques, Sandy addressed the so-called “notch.”
“I would call a fool anybody that would take off and head for that notch with a heavily loaded airplane,” he said. “This being an uncontrolled airport doesn’t mean we can just do anything we want. We have some very strong sugestions from the FAA that says you can fly anyway you want in Tehachapi as long as you don’t interfere with the normal flow of traffic. There’s a cardinal rule that we should look at; it’s not quite as dangerous out there as some people will have you think.
Mayor Phil Smith then ask Airport Manager Tom Glasgow to come up and answer some questions.
Smith said, “Theres a primary theme in the questions that was raised from the PUC code that we are obligated to create an airport land use commission. Would you address that? The county produced a document and they included required documents from the state handbook. Do we need one or do we not need one?”
Glasgow replied, “We do not need one.”
City Attorney Tom Schroeter interjected, “Mr. Mayor we are not required to have a commission.”
Glasgow continued, “The document is 20 years old 1993. My understanding is the document has been amended in 1996, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2011. We do not have to amend our document unless we have certain changes to the airport. It is recommended that you depart runway 29 straight out or that you do a 45 degree left turn. If you want to go any other direction you should use good judgement and be safe.”
Council member Kim Nixon said, “I appreciate what Mr. Hetge has said and presented, but he makes it sound like aircraft are not safe and pilots don't have a brain and that is not true. There are airplanes that fly over this valley all the time. They could land in a house, they could land anywhere. The only way to keep this community safe is to not let aviation take place in this community and that would be horrible. Let’s keep things real and not get caught up in the scare tactics.”
Smith said, “We rely on a document developed by professionals and it includes the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan and was written and devised by professionals and it includes the California airport planning guidelines. The FAA has said its OK to put it there, Caltrans has said it’s OK to put it there. So I am inclined to say I am going with the specialists at the FAA and the people that created the document.”
The council voted 4-0 to adopt a resolution denying the appeal.
Following the meeting Hetge said, “I think there been a huge injustice done to the community by misguided information provided by city staff that has swayed and convinced the City Council to make an appropriate decision. It ain't over till its over.”