Free, free falling at South County airport - The Gilroy Dispatch: San Martin / Santa Clara County

Free, free falling at South County airport

FAA rules in favor of skydiving and denies County’s appeal; Bodin wants to start up ASAP

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Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 4:43 pm | Updated: 9:14 am, Wed Sep 18, 2013.

The Federal Aviation Administration sees no reason why skydiving should not be allowed at South County Airport in San Martin, and has denied the County’s appeal to forbid Garlic City Skydiving from opening up on its premises.

In response, the County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to not appeal the FAA’s final determination. District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman confirmed the County has been directed to prepare a plan to allow skydiving to occur under certain conditions at the general aviation airport.

For Garlic City Skydiving owner Jeff Bodin, the 4.5-year battle with the county’s airport division is finally over.

“I want to open up the business,” said Bodin, who last week learned of the FAA’s favorable ruling and hopes to rebuild his strained relationship with the County. “I’m a Gilroy guy. I don’t want to move. South County Airport is ideal. It’s sparsely used. It’s a beautiful location.”

The County had a problem with skydivers landing near the airstrip situated close and parallel to U.S. 101, and argued that it’s unsafe for the skydivers, passing motorists and aircrafts taking off and landing. They also pointed to the fact that the airport operates as a reliever airport to the three Bay Area metropolitan airports for small, unscheduled flights.

However, the FAA – which previously did studies on the safety issue and said the findings don’t support the County’s take – concluded none of those are "persuasive arguments" to overturn its initial decision.

Bodin is still hesitant to call the FAA’s ruling a complete victory until the first plane loaded with skydivers is able to take off from the airport.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Bodin, whose attorney, Richard Durden, has already reached out to the County about starting up the skydiving business in San Martin “as soon as possible so that a successful business can provide a benefit to both the County and Mr. Bodin.”

The Supervisors’ decision will also end federal sanctions preventing South County Airport, as well as the two other County-run airports (Palo Alto Airport and Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose), from receiving valuable federal grant funds through its Airport Improvement Program (AIP). The county is entitled to $150,000 annually through the AIP. Those funds were being withheld due to non-compliance with federal guidelines.

Assistant Director Eric Peterson of County Airports said the grant money is “valuable” to airport upgrade projects such as the proposed pavement repair work for the runways and airplane taxi areas that have been put on hold.

“It’s still a waiting game,” Bodin insisted.

Bodin estimated that his thrill-seeking business would have generated half a million dollars in fuel costs and paid close to $50,000 in rent to the airport over the last 4.5 years. He estimates that his business will draw between 100 to 200 weekend visitors to the area and “provide a revenue stream for the City of San Martin, Gilroy and Morgan Hill.”

In its final determination, signed Aug. 12 by Associate Administrator for Airports Christa Fornarotto, the FAA upheld its original Dec. 19, 2011 ruling stating that there is no reason why Garlic City Skydiving can’t use San Martin’s general aviation airport as its home base and landing spot for thrill-seeking customers.

In the County’s original response to Bodin’s complaint, which led to the federal grant sanctions, the County stated “the proposal creates a hazard to air traffic and to persons and property on the surface that cannot be mitigated.”

Magnum Aviation owner Gary Robinson, whose company runs a flight school, performs aircraft maintenance and is responsible for the upkeep of the taxi areas at the airport and leases airport land from the county, said his business has been negatively affected by the County’s stubbornness to allow skydiving. He believes skydivers “have every right to the airspace” and skydiving is “not any more hazardous than any other aeronautical activity.”

“I think they would be a good tenant,” said Robinson, who let Garlic City Skydiving out of its rental agreement after the County’s decision. “By (the County) stopping this, it has hurt our business.”

According to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, it is not uncommon for skydivers to land on airport property. Federal regulations allow airport landings as long as there is prior approval from airport officials, the parachutist is at least 2,000 feet above the airport’s traffic pattern and a two-way radio is used for communication between the pilot and control tower.

At two other local airports in Watsonville and Hollister, where skydiving companies are allowed to operate, skydivers land at a designated area away from the airport property and are transported back. A skydiver from Hollister Skydive comes in for a landing at the landing strip on Quien Sabe Road just south of Hollister. The County had asked Bodin to follow that same procedure in order to start his new business in San Martin.

“The skydiving community is huge. There are 400 to 500 skydivers just in Bay Area alone,” concluded Bodin, who wants to provide a more convenient service to those customers instead of them having to travel to airports in Davis or Lodi. “We’re going to have a great community here in San Martin and become a very active and contributing member to the airport.”

Robinson, whose company has been at South County Airport for about eight years and has a long-term lease through Dec. 31, 2020, said the needed revenue from the fuel is only one thing they’ve missed out on. He added that just “getting people excited about aviation activities” could be a big boost for everyone at the airport.

“I really hate the idea that the County thinks they know more (than the FAA) and are dictating to us what is safe and not safe,” Robinson said. “It’s not like this is the first time this has been done at an airport.”

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