Pilot Bob Cannon talked Tuesday of living for decades with the knowledge that Huntington Beach's scruffy little Meadowlark Airport would one day be razed for a more lucrative development.
"One of my friends who used to be tied down here came in 1958 and paid $5 for half a month's tie-down (rent)," Cannon said of the airstrip near the corner of Warner Avenue and Bolsa Chica Street. "A fellow next to him said, 'Hey, you're new here. I sure hope you weren't dumb enough to pay the full month's rent because this airport's going to close any day now.' "
"Let's face it," added Cannon, owner of an aerial advertising business housed at Meadowlark, "this airport's been about to close since I began flying here in 1948."
On Monday night, the Huntington Beach City Council took the final step toward shutting down Meadowlark, signaling the end of an era for pilots who have flown out of the World War II-era airfield and, at times, fixed the runway lights themselves to keep the place operating.
Voting 4 to 3, the council approved plans to develop a 15-acre shopping center and 600 homes on the site that Art and Dick Nerio have owned since 1952 in the heart of Huntington Beach, east of Bolsa Chica Street between Warner and Heil avenues.
Six Months Away
Their plans call for the airfield--site of many accidents in the last decade--to cease operating within 60 days after the Nerios get initial city approval. The family said it does not anticipate that happening for another six months.
"I'm kind of happy, kind of sad," said Art Nerio, who manages daily operation of the family airfield, with Fullerton Airport one of just two remaining airports in the county devoted exclusively to small planes. Tuesday's inclement weather had reduced the typical weekday turnout of about 300 pilots to about 25, so Nerio had some spare time to chat.
"I have mixed feelings," he said. "My family, we've been here a very long time."
A small but vocal group of residents and pilots had addressed the City Council on Monday night and expressed both support and opposition to the $100-million development that the Nerios had proposed and that the city planning staff had endorsed.
Pilots bemoaned the loss of dwindling tie-down space in the county and urged the city to acquire the property for a municipally run airport. That idea had been explored earlier, however, by the Huntington Beach Planning Commission, which rejected it and approved the Nerio development project Dec. 1 on a 5-2 vote.
"I've been on a waiting list for (tie-down space) at John Wayne Airport since June of 1980," one pilot said, "and John Wayne says it will be another six to eight years. . . . If the airport is closed, we have nowhere to go."
Other residents urged approval of the project because it would spell closure of the airport.
"We're sitting on a time bomb," a pharmacist who lives near Meadowlark told the council, referring to the possibility of a disastrous crash like the 1986 midair collision over Cerritos between a light plane and a commercial aircraft.
Geri Ortega, vice president of a 500-member coalition for controlled growth, Huntington Beach Tomorrow, said that the city's General Plan "is all that protects us as residents" from overdevelopment in neighborhoods and warned that the Nerio project would create unbearable traffic on already-clogged city streets.
The City Council vote was to approve a change in the city's general plan amendment from low-density residential, which essentially calls for 350 single-family homes, to a planned-community designation, which allows the owners to build more units per acre.
Council members Ruth Finley, Peter M. Green and Grace Winchell, who voted against the project, favor closing the airport but wanted fewer residential units built.
Project Planned in Stages
City planners argued that traffic and sewage capacity will not be overburdened because the project will be built in phases, with the commercial portion done first. The shopping center will include a grocery store, pharmacy and other businesses geared to serve shoppers, said Dick Harlow, a consultant working with the Nerios.
For people like Cannon, closing the airport will mean not only searching for already-scarce tie-down space but a new home for his successful small business, Sky Ads, which he has run with eight planes since 1976.
"What I'm doing right now is looking desperately for a compromise location, knowing that there simply isn't going to be anything like this airport," Cannon said Tuesday.
"After all, we are sitting right in the heart of the richest part of the nation, with a little country airport, which there isn't anything like anywhere. It's the last privately owned airport in the greater Los Angeles-Orange County area."