Airport tenants and residents hope a plan to improve revenue and develop more business at Tehachapi Municipal Airport will soon be put into action, rather than using airport property for non-aeronautical purposes.
“If our airport continues to operate in the red, which it has done for years, we need to as a council come together with a plan to fix that somehow or another and we need to do that by aggressively going out and advertising for additional businesses, for light commercial,” Councilman Kenneth R. Hetge, who is also an airport tenant, said at the March 4 City Council meeting.
“I think this council is doing a disservice to the community by continuing to allow a negative, negative, negative, regarding the airport and subsidizing with other funds from other areas,” he added.
Bear Valley Springs resident and airport tenant Mike Lerner asked when previously discussed improvements to the waste water treatment plant would be implemented.
Currently, effluent water from the city of Tehachapi's Waste Water Treatment Plant is dumped on part of the airport property.
In 1991, the the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued an interim water discharge permit for the land to "increase the present treatment plant design capacity" and use a borrow pit until a new treatment facility was to be completed in 1993 or 1994, according to the water discharge permit request. The area is still encumbered by this permit.
Lerner added, “When can we expect ... the northside of the airport be reclaimed for aviation and light industrial commercial development as shown in the city’s own airport master plan?”
City resident Scott Baker said that originally the permit was requested due to unauthorized discharges to Tehachapi Creek. It was a way for the city to use airport property to take care of the water problem. He said the city should only use the airport property for non-aeronautical purposes for five-year periods and said the airport land was not given subsidized funds before 2006.
Other speakers at the council meeting asked why a fair market valuation conducted on the airport was based on current airport use rather than the value of the light industrial use for which the land is zoned.
This discussion was sparked by a fair market value appraisal of property on the north side of the airport that would change the amount the Tehachapi Wastewater Utility Department would pay the Airport Enterprise Fund. The council voted unanimously to change the payment.
The city reached out to several companies for quotes, although only one response was received from Merriman Hurst & Associates, Inc. to determine the fair market value of the developed and non-developed areas. The fair market value for the annual lease is $12,685, with $200 per acre for developed or with infrastructure and $15 per acre for nondeveloped.
Baker added this is considerably lower than what airport users pay now.
The Wastewater Utility Department used to pay the Airport Enterprise Fund a $30,000 annual fee, so now the general fund dollars will have to make up the difference.
“We are not taking money away from the airport,” added City Manager Greg Garrett.
In regard to how the amount to pay the Tehachapi Wastewater Utility department was determined in the past. Garrett said, “This was an arbitrary agreement pulled out of the air many, many years ago.” He added that once the FAA requested a fair market value be established, the city was legally obligated to pay the determined price to use airport land for non-aeronautical purposes.
The appraisal was needed due to a letter from the FAA requesting the city determine current fair market value rates for not only the water sewer ponds, but also the rodeo event center, airport industrial park, cell towers, billboards, and non-aeronuatical use parking areas, said the FAA 2017 Tehachapi Municipal Airport Land Use Inspection Report.
The Wastewater Utility Department has paid $30,000 annual rent to the city-owned airport. As these are both departments of the city of Tehachapi, an official memorandum to transfer the money has never been in place.
“Under our permit with the state, we discharge secondary treated water that goes through two forms of treatment at the waste water treatment plant and that gets discharged at the airport to grow crops, alfalfa basically,” said Don Marsh, public works director. “We don’t grow alfalfa during the winter; we only do that during the summer when alfalfa grows.”
Marsh added that the alfalfa is not harvested; it is on the land for the effluent water. Effluent water is treated wastewater that is unfit for public consumption.
A 2018 Annual Report for Tehachapi's Wastewater Treatment Plant shows that treated effluent was applied to 53 acres of farmland, as in years past. Alfalfa has not been reseeded since 2014 and pasture grass has taken over. The report added that the city intends to reseed the reclamation area at the rodeo grounds this year.
The city of Tehachapi argues these non-aeronautical uses help generate income for the airport, as city officials say private investors do not want to build on the airport. The city has said it would be expensive to construct additional hangars and the land should be valued by use rather than by zoning.
Revenue-generating ideas such as the Tehachapi Event Center & Rodeo Grounds, motocross track and agreements with Verizon for cell tower leases have been discussed and planned, with some failing due to tenants not wanting these improvements to airport land, Councilman Phil Smith said.
“We don’t have folks, even with advertising, breaking the door down saying we want to build industry on the north side. If they do want to do that, we have room to do that. ... If you were to put an event center in there, you would probably have revenue that would probably wipe out the annual debt,” Smith said.
The city may be able to move the effluent water to other places in the future.
“We hope to be able to push that water to the Blackburn Dam, which is only controlled by Tehachapi Cummings-County Water District, and let the water percolate into our groundwater, which already happens anyway ... and then we can regain those water rights for ourselves so we can become self-sufficient. That’s is a big benefit in the freshwater world,” Garrett said.