I-Team

I-Team: Dangerous skies over Sonoma

Thursday, September 27, 2012
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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The owner of a small historic airport in Sonoma County is battling with a neighbor over what he can build next door and whether it puts pilots, and the public, at risk. The Sonoma Valley Airport is located off Highway 121 in an area surrounded by vineyards.

Some things just don't mix well with an airport such as guns, birds and a big log fence at the end of the runway, but that's just what we found at the Sonoma Valley Airport.

The 65-year-old airport is a magnet for vintage airplane buffs and it's home to some very rare planes like the Grumman F3F -- one of only two in the world still flying.

"It's an addiction. It's the nostalgia, it's the history," said pilot Tom Morris.

Pilots like Ken Copp came to Sonoma decades ago and planned to stay till the end, tinkering with a plane that first flew around the time he started flying as a British paratrooper in the 1940s.

"I decided that I wanted a, being British, I wanted a British airplane," said Copp.

Even in this devoted crowd, airport owner Chris Prevost stands out. In 1993 ABC7 News interviewed him as he flew tourists up in the air and turned loops for the camera. He is a master builder, restoring planes by hand, and he's built over 20 of them. He actually bought the airport in 2008. The private airport is open to the public.

Noyes: You've been here how long?
Prevost: I've been here all my life.

Now he's struggling to stay. Safety issues could force state aviation authorities to shut him down and he says his neighbor is to blame.

Noyes: How serious of an issue is this?
Prevost: This I believe is, this I believe is airport existence or airport extinction.

That's where Fly Fishing Ranch owner Josh Frazier comes in. He bought the property next door in 2004 to build a fly fishing ranch.

"This is everything for me. This is my wife and I's dream to teach people to fly cast out here," said Frazier.

Frazier couldn't get the county permits he needed to dig a commercial fishing pond next to an airport. Ponds stocked with fish bring birds, which would be a clear hazard for planes. So Frazier re-applied for an agricultural pond permit and the request sailed through. Then he added a retail building, remodeled a residence and somewhere along the way built a shooting range facing the runway. He also offered fishing lessons. The county says he didn't have permits for any of this.

Ben Neuman is the Sonoma County code enforcement manager.

Noyes: So you're saying that he's skirting the permit process in some ways.
Neuman: I would hate to say that in a nutshell, but he has found his way to break down barriers to achieve a goal.
Noyes: On the scale of cases you come across he is sophisticated.
Neuman: Oh yes, I would consider a sophisticated applicant, yes.

Noyes: They say you have a very sophisticated method of trying to get around the permitting process. How do you respond to that?
Frazier: I guess I'm flattered that l'm so sophisticated.

Sonoma County sued Leland Fly Fishing Outfitters, Frazier settled, and agreed to pay $53,000 in fines and court costs. He's allowed to keep the retail business open, but he can't operate a fly fishing school next to the airport.

Noyes: They came down on you.
Frazier: They did, right... I believe they gave me the wrong permit.
Noyes: So it's their fault, it wasn't you trying to circumvent the process?
Frazier: I believe that's true.

Neuman tells us Frazier has made it clear his ultimate goal is to operate the fly fishing school. Frazier has applied for a permit to remodel his house and build a retail space, even though the work is already done. And the drama grows as more county officials get involved.

Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown says she thinks there is a place for both businesses. She said, "I have as much advocacy for the airport as I do for the fly fishing establishment. I think we need all the businesses we can have in Sonoma County."

She also points out the airport has a fire suppression pond on their property.

"There's water all the way around there, it's not been a problem in the past. I certainly wouldn't want to discount the fact that it could be," said Brown.

That position angers Don Smith who sits on the county Airport Land Use Commission. They advise the Board Of Supervisors.

"There is no question that we found it incompatible and why we found it incompatible," said Smith.

His number one concern is that the additional pond will bring more birds and increase the chance of an accident. That's what happened to pilot Greg Baer. Just as he was about to liftoff in February, a large goose smacked his plane.

"It made a huge, huge thud, there's no mistaking that I hit something. It definitely opened my eyes to how bad it could be," said Baer.

"This is what scares me. Is it going to take somebody gets killed before we react to this?" said Smith.

But the debate doesn't end at the county level. There are more problems for Prevost. Now the state Department of Transportation is taking aim at a fence Frazier built to keep his fly fishing customers from wandering on to the runway. Frazier says he built it in response to complaints from the airport.

"The basic problem is public safety," said Prevost.

Prevost took us up in his plane for a better look at the ponds and the log fence across the runway safety zone that falls on Frazier's property. The fence slices through an area that should be kept clear to give planes extra space in an emergency.

In July the Department of Transportation sent the airport a letter giving notice that the fence is a violation of the California Public Utilities code and that for flight and public safety, they strongly recommend the fences be removed.

Noyes: Why is that fence there?
Frazier: If it is a danger, we'll definitely look into it and take care of it.

But the clock is ticking for the airport. The Department of Transportation will review their operating permit before the end of the year. If the fence doesn't come down by then, the Department of Transportation could shut them down.

Both sides are digging in for a fight, while pilots like Copp are coming to terms with what it might mean to lose.

"In a situation like they have now there's a possibility that they will say you can't fly from here anymore and that screws up your whole retirement setup... and life just falls apart," said Copp.

Next up for Frazier is the Board of Zoning Appeals where he presents his case for the house permit. He has also applied for a permit to build his store after the fact. Then it's on to get the fishing school legalized, but there is one permit he won't pursue. After we started asking questions, he took down the shooting range that was headed towards the airport.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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sonoma county, i-team, dan noyes
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