Last fall a few of us out here in Spanish Valley witnessed a plane crash on the Old Airport. While it wasn’t a fatal crash, it highlighted what could happen on the nearby Sky Ranch airstrip if the developers get approval to line the old runway with houses. Since I live a couple of wingtips away from the airstrip, I decided to research the impacts small plane crashes have in neighborhood airports and the concept of “change of use.”
In the aviation world there is rule called “plus three minus eight.” This refers to the fact that 80 percent of all airplane crashes occur in the three minutes during takeoff and final eight minutes before landing. Forty percent of those accidents occur during final approach and landing. Imagine a plane having trouble during takeoff or landing ... where do they end up? In someone’s house. This is the reality of a neighborhood airport.
Although most people read about plane crashes involving large, multi-passenger commercial flights, private airplane accidents result in the most fatalities. Statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board indicate that a staggering 97 percent of aviation fatalities occur in general aviation, not in commercial flights.
The Sky Ranch airstrip has always been just that ... an airstrip. It has seen almost zero use over the past years until it received what was likely a million-dollar upgrade last fall to accommodate UPS flights during the time that Moab’s Canyonlands Field was being renovated. Prior to this upgrade, no “change of use” had been discussed. Does a million-dollar upgrade automatically change the status of this rarely used airstrip into a thriving airport? Does an almost abandoned airstrip automatically grandfather into an airport with no consideration or approval of the dramatic change in use and associated impacts?
One important factor in “change of use” is whether the essential nature or character of the existing use, or its purpose, and the new use are distinctly different and not incidental to each other. If so, then that would represent a change in the use of the land. It seems evident that going from one or two planes a year to potentially 100 planes a weekend is a significant “change of use.”
Another factor is whether or not the land use has been operative due to closure, vacancy or inactivity for an extended period of time. If this is the case, in many cases the site forfeits its existing use rights and the former use cannot be resurrected without new approval from governing bodies. Sky Ranch is going through a radical “change of use” and this should also be discussed when considering the proposed development plan.
We would love to see San Juan County benefit from the tax revenue that a new neighborhood in Spanish Valley brings. We are not opposed to having new neighbors at Sky Ranch. But by approving an airport in Spanish Valley, the county can look forward to years of complaints of low-flying aircraft, noise from approaches and take-offs, property value challenges, frustrated citizens and tax revenue tied up in lawsuits and litigation.