Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fly Away, Airfield (Press Enterprise 082606)

Fly Away, Airfield

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, August 26, 2006


In 1947, Midwesterner Sam Miro visited inland Southern California. A patch of land near Rialto caught his fancy as the ideal place for a small airfield.

Miro bought 60 acres and moved his family out West, grading the dirt and oiling it down for a makeshift runway on the outskirts of town.

In 1967, with the 210 freeway rumored to be soon going through, Miro's airstrip caught Rialto's fancy as an ideal catalyst for economic growth.

The city bought the private airport, expanding it over the ensuing years to encompass nearly 450 acres.

Today, Rialto Municipal Airport is home to an aircraft-painting company, a renowned restorer of World War II-era aircraft, the Sheriff's Aviation Division and an air ambulance service, among others.

By the end of next year, the last planes and helicopters may fly out of Rialto for the last time.

Forty years after the city saw the airport as the key to economic growth, it's now seen as standing in the way, now that the freeway is being built.

A Congressional act has cleared the way to close the airport to make way for a tax-generating, 1,100-acre community with homes, stores, parks, schools and workplaces on the airport and surrounding land.

Rich Scanlan, the airport's manager for 15 years, says the city made the right decision. He tracks forecasts for general aviation and said the number of private pilots is expected to remain flat or even decline over the next decade.

But the closure of Rialto airport worries the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which says airfields in Bakersfield, Oceanside and Upland also are threatened by development.

Bill Dunn, the group's spokesman, said developers drool over airports as the last pieces of flat, developable land, and city officials think only about the revenue. But closing an airport is like closing an entrance to the city, he said. And once closed, it cannot be replaced.

Still, the closure has few detractors in Rialto. Few residents opposed it, once assured their homes weren't targeted for eminent domain. And most airport tenants see it as possibly benefiting them.

The city must pay to relocate them, and many who agree to move eight miles east to San Bernardino International Airport (the former Norton Air Force Base), will get new hangars and buildings.

Rialto is the biggest winner because it will get 55 percent of the net proceeds of the land sale (certain to be in the millions of dollars), plus new property and sales tax from the planned development.

But it also will be a big shot in the arm for San Bernardino International, which has been struggling for 15 years to redevelop.

The former Norton air base will get 45 percent of the net proceeds. Some will be used on relocation costs, but the rest can be used on other airport improvements, said Don Rogers, executive director.

Having small planes won't hamper efforts to attract commercial and cargo flights to the former air base, Rogers said, because small planes will be stored northeast of the landing strip, larger craft at the west.

Rialto has been working on the plan for two years. Another two will be needed to move the tenants. The next three decades will reshape the city where Sam Miro's airfield once lay.

Cassie MacDuff can be reached at 909-806-3068 or

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