A proposed $500 million cargo airport southeast of San Diego could bolster the area's manufacturing sector, but opposition to the airport is growing.
With passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the economic expansion of the late 1990s, the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area has become a major manufacturing hub. Factories on either side of the border turn out clothes, televisions, appliances, parts and other items.
However, distributing the products to markets, or to final assembly plants, is increasing becoming a headache. And the limited distribution system now available could hamper further economic growth, some analysts say.
San Diego's Lindbergh Field is a highly constrained airport, with a short runway, strict noise requirements and poor ground access. And expansion of facilities at Lindbergh will probably be dedicated to passenger service. Because of Lindbergh's limited capacity, 90% of products that require shipping by air — that's about 500,000 tons a year — are sent out of airports more than 100 miles north in Los Angeles and Ontario.
Business interests and the City of San Diego would like to see new facilities for cargo shipping, so the city has proposed converting a general aviation airport on Otay Mesa — only two miles north of the U.S-Mexico border — into a major cargo airport. The city acquired Brown Field from the military nearly 40 years ago, and it owns 886 acres in the area. The city would need an additional 235 acres to the east of Brown Field to accommodate the cargo airport.
"Eventually, we are going to need every square inch of Lindbergh for passenger service, so this provides an outlet for cargo handlers there already," said Mike Westlake, a city planner for San Diego.
But, as with any airport proposal, opponents are lining up against the city's plans for Brown Field. The cities of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and Coronado have all gone on record against the cargo airport, which would be called San Diego Air Commerce Center. San Diego County has questioned the project, and, in June, Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) announced his opposition because the airport would "detract from the quality of life" for South Bay residents. Although he has no vote in the matter, Filner's stance was a blow to airport backers because he represents the area in Congress and he had earlier spoken highly of the airport's economic benefits.
San Diego city officials and a consortium of developers have talked about a cargo airport at Brown Field since at least 1998, and developers report that they have already poured $6 million into planning. However, when the project reached the city's Planning Commission in May, the commission voted 3-1 to reject the environmental impact report and deny the project. But with three of the seven commissioners recusing themselves because of conflicts of interest, the project actually goes to the City Council without a Planning Commission recommendation, Westlake said.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the proposal on August 14. In the meantime, representatives of the city, the county and developers have been meeting to see if a compromise can be reached. Although the county will not take an official position before the Board of Supervisors considers the issues late this month, the county is worried that the cargo airport would hamper the county's own economic development plans for the area, said Joan Vokac, the county's chief of advance planning.
"Our concern is that we are attempting to development an industrial park on the east end of the airport," Vokac said. "We're targeting the area for a high-tech park." A busy, noisy airport might not be compatible with technology campuses, she said.
The county would like assurances from the Federal Aviation Administration that developer's plans to have airplanes take off toward the west — and away from the county's proposed business park — are realistic, Vokac said.
The county has a specific plan for 3,300 lightly developed acres on Otay Mesa near the airport. Because the property lies within the Border Development Zone, the city can reinvest the tax increment to encourage development, Vokac explained.
Erik Bruvold, director of government relations for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, said there is no reason the county and city could not mesh their plans.
"We think there are synergies between what they [county officials] are planning to do and the airport," Bruvold said.
The EDC endorses the cargo airport as a way to support industrial growth on both sides of the border. Quick access to a facility would support expansion of "just-in-time" manufacturing that has blossomed in Baja California, Bruvold said. Plus, the cargo airport itself would provide good jobs, he added.
"The kinds of jobs that are going to be created at an air cargo center are good, middle-class jobs. They typically are in the logistics area, are often unionized and pay a good wage," Bruvold said.
According to developers, the cargo airport when fully built out in 2017 could provide up to 11,000 jobs and generate $750 million in annual gross receipts. If those figures are accurate, Brown Field would be a very busy place — a prospect that angers residents for miles around the site.
Imperial Beach Mayor Diane Rose recently sent out a letter urging residents of the city, which lies under the proposed flight path, to fight the project. The airport, combined with existing Navy helicopter activity at Ream Field, means "Imperial beach is facing aircraft noise pollution 24 hours a day 7 days a week," Rose wrote.
Area residents have already filled public hearings on the project. And purchasers of some new homes west of Brown Field have filed lawsuits against the developer, alleging they were deceived. A recent demonstration with a Boeing 747 appears to have only steeled opponents, who complained about the noise.
But Westlake, the San Diego city planner, said the environmental impact report determined the airport would not be incompatible with other land uses and that large jets would not impact surrounded property owners. At the start of operations, the cargo airport would have only about 48 flights a day, he said.
Mike Westlake, San Diego city planner, (619) 446-5220.
Joan Vokac, San Diego County chief of advance planning, (858) 694-3765.
Erik Bruvold, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation director of government relations, (619) 234-8484.