Montgomery Field, once a candidate to become San Diego's international airport before the nod went to Lindbergh Field, has struggled more than a decade to expand its main runway by 1,200 feet.
But residents near the city-owned airfield in Kearny Mesa fear a runway improvement will attract more and bigger planes, and, with them, more noise and an increased risk of plane crashes, which Montgomery has had with uncomfortable frequency since the expansion was first considered in 1980.
Not wanting to live with the added din, or watch the value of their property decrease, Montgomery's neighbors have put up a fight.
Complaints from residents were first voiced through a City Council exploratory committee on construction at the airport and reiterated in rancorous public hearings and in four lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court.
In response, the City Council put a hold on bidding for the runway project, even after accepting a $1.5-million Federal Aviation Administration grant to pay for the expansion. The council asked this summer for a one-year delay to gauge public sentiment.
Airport officials and users embarked in June on a public relations campaign to sway their neighbors. Contrary to fears, expansionists say, the project is strictly a safety measure, and, if pilots make proper use of the longer runway, there will also be less noise.
And, supporters stress, a longer runway will provide more safety.
The existing runway is 3,400 feet. Twelve hundred feet of added runway will allow more time to abort flights or to react to malfunctions, airport manager Tom Raines said. A 1983 crash with five fatalities, and many less-severe accidents, might have been avoided had there been a longer runway, Raines said.
The runway extension should also allow aircraft to build faster speeds on takeoff. When planes pass over residential areas, altitudes should be higher and noise at ground level diminished, expansion proponents say.
What seems a straightforward explanation has not been taken well by some neighbors.
Expansion opponents say the main motive behind the project is to increase commercial use of the airport by small air commuters and personal business jets.
Under Montgomery airfield's general use restrictions, only private planes and unscheduled commercial flights are allowed. Commercial flights are charged for airport use; private flyers pay no fees for landing and taking off.
"This is all for money," said Clairemont resident Charles Carter-House, a navigation equipment worker at Miramar Naval Air Station. "Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell us a bill of goods."
Although city-owned, the airport is independently managed and self-supporting. Fees are charged for aircraft storage, maintenance, equipment, fuel and lodging for pilots and passengers at an airport hotel.
For the past 10 years, Montgomery Field has been rated in the top 20 busiest airports in the country. Ratings are based on the number of flight operations--takeoffs and landings--handled each year. In 1991, Montgomery recorded more than 250,000 operations.
Buzz Gibbs, whose father, Bill, founded the airport in 1937, is a pilot and owner of a flight service business near the airport.
He said he watched the airport start as a strip of grass in a field of scrub, where early prop planes shared the wilderness with rabbit hunters.
In 1948, the city planned to develop Montgomery into a full-blown international airport, and, through condemnation, acquired the field and the surrounding 1,400 acres. The advent of the Korean War and the stepped-up use of Miramar Naval Air Station put a stop to the plan. Montgomery was just 3 miles south of the air station, raising concerns over crowded airspace. Lindbergh Field, another 6 miles south, was a safer choice.
Since then, the airstrip has changed little. And much of the advancement in airport technology, Gibbs said, seems to have passed Montgomery Field by.
The runway expansion is a relatively minor step toward modernization, Gibbs said.
"The types of airplanes that exist today are larger, faster, more sophisticated," he said. "The airport hasn't grown to keep up with the pace of development."
The airport's size has remained the same for a reason, residents who fall under the flight paths will attest. The neighbors in the residential area to the east and southwest of Montgomery have fought continuously to keep the airport small.
Their efforts brought about a number of restrictions on airport use in 1984, including a curfew on night flights and enforcement of lower noise levels--aided by monitoring devices and citations.
Quentin Yates, a property manager from Clairemont, said he thinks the city has been lax in enforcing the restrictions. He bought a $30 decibel meter from a local Radio Shack to check if planes were exceeding the average 70 decibel level set by noise abatement officials.
Armed with the meter, he went to public hearings to report his findings.