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Board of Supervisors opts to keep Oceano's airport operating, improve it 

Although Oceano community members have been at odds over whether to close or renovate the Oceano Airport, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to continue operating the county-run airport and make improvements to it in the future.

During the March 26 Board of Supervisors meeting, county Director of Airports Courtney Johnson said that the airport is self-sustaining, but the county is not content with that.

click to enlarge BUSINESS AS USUAL The SLO County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to continue operations for the Oceano Community Services District airport after claiming it brings the county economic growth and prosperity. - FILE PHOTO FROM FRIENDS OF OCEANO AIRPORT
  • File Photo From Friends Of Oceano Airport
  • BUSINESS AS USUAL The SLO County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to continue operations for the Oceano Community Services District airport after claiming it brings the county economic growth and prosperity.

"We aim for so much more; our vision for Oceano Airport extends far beyond its runways and hangars. We envision an airport that serves as a beacon of economic growth and prosperity for our community," she said. "We see opportunities abound, not just for ourselves, but for future generations."

Johnson said the county envisions a future where the airport is not just a place for transit, but a catalyst for greater economic output, a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship that drives job creation and economic vitality through the region. To help the county realize that future, it needs to take care of some priorities.

During a Dec. 15, 2023, California Coastal Commission meeting, commission staff said that the county's proposed improvements and repairs were necessary for the airport to continue operating.

"The project will repair or replace and upgrade several airport components including renovating the existing pilots' campground area, replacing the pilots' lounge, repaving and adding ADA improvements to the parking lot, replacing damaged airport hangars, and upgrading various utilities," California Coastal Commission staffer Devin Jackson said during the December meeting.

Fourth District county Supervisor Jimmy Paulding said in addition to those repairs, during the recent winter storms that battered SLO County, an additional four hangars got knocked down.

Some Oceano residents who spoke during public comment at the March 26 meeting agreed with the county's vision for the future.

Oceano Community Services District board member Linda Austin said she supported the continued operation of the airport and the proposed repairs and needed infrastructure upgrades.

"The improvements slated for the airport are long overdue and are very much needed. The benefits to the community are immense, and I regularly attend and participate in events held by the Friends of the Oceano Airport and I see firsthand the benefits our community receives by having an active group that supports aviation and community," she said. "With enhanced improvements, I visualize projects and programs that our local schoolchildren in the Boys and Girls Club can participate and benefit from these improvements."

However, other residents like Oceano Community Services District board member Allene Villa feel differently. During public comment, Villa said that she's against continuing airport operations because it offers very little socioeconomic benefit to the community.

"Oceano is a disadvantaged community in need of recreational space, small businesses, and basic infrastructure. We also are a very land poor community. We don't have any large open spaces; we have one small community park and an unsafe beach for recreation," she said. "These 60 acres could provide the residents of Oceano a decent size recreational park and an opportunity for development of nature-based outside businesses."

Paulding said the Coastal Commission gave strong deference to community members' concerns regarding environmental injustice in Oceano.

During the December Coastal Commission meeting, staff recommended that SLO County put community needs and environmental justice front and center.

"The community of Oceano is a lower income community of color where about a third of its population has an income less than two times the federal poverty rate," Jackson said. "The airport itself, which occupies 60 acres in the middle of the community, has its own set of direct and indirect impacts. In many respects, the Oceano community is a classic example of the historically disenfranchised lower income communities of color disproportionately suffering from a series of land use decisions."

During the Board of Supervisors meeting, Paulding said that while the Coastal Commission is right that environmental injustice exists in Oceano, he doesn't think it's related to the airport.

"Environmental injustice ... occurs when poor or marginalized communities are harmed by hazardous waste, resource extraction, and other land uses from which they do not benefit," he said. "I think this particular case centers on whether or not the airport represents the highest and best use for the community of Oceano, and we heard that from members of the public today."

Paulding said he was interested in exploring what other options there could be for the airport's land and how feasible those options are. However, according to staff, the only other use for airport land would be to turn it back into a wetland.

"So now we're looking at what's the benefit to Oceano of a wetland. Perhaps it could have coastal access trails and things like that, but then we start looking at it from a lens of parks and recreation and policymaking and how much of a priority that is," he said. "So when I go back to that question on how much benefit does the airport currently provide and how much it could provide, juxtaposed to the idea of how much benefit it would provide as a wetland, I'm really just not convinced it's a worthwhile investment at this time for our board."

Paulding added that he doesn't think the county has the ability to convert the airport to another use or even the financial feasibility to do it.

"It would cost so much to do it that it just doesn't make sense in the context of the board's other priorities," he said. "Further, I'm led to the conclusion that there's a lot more opportunity that this community asset can generate for the community if we're willing to work together as a community to capitalize on it."

The OCSD airport also plays an important role in serving in air operations, Paulding said. For the past three years, 117 emergency flights—from the U.S. Air Force and medical services—have flown into and out of Oceano.

"This is a really vital public safety function that this airport is serving, and we have to take that into account as policymakers," he said. Δ

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