Local airport users can breathe a sigh of relief as the City Council this week voted to dismiss a land use study that had created uncertainty about the future of Torrance’s beloved municipal airport, also known as Zamperini Field.
Amid strong protests from pilots who argued that the airport is “a valuable asset,” the majority of the City Council rejected the land use study on Tuesday evening. The council also agreed to consider a collaborative vision plan for the airport’s future involving city commissioners, residents and the pilot community. This effort may include a third-party facilitator.
“The airport closure study idea has gotten no support, which we expected,” Peter Broen, president of Torrance Airport Association, said in a Wednesday interview. “It really wasn’t seriously considered, but I was very encouraged by some of the discussions about creating a plan for the airport going forward.”
Zamperini Field has been a significant part of the community since its establishment in the 1940s. Spanning 506 acres, the airport houses many fixed-base operators and businesses. Among them is Robinson Helicopter Company, a major manufacturer of private helicopters in the country.
In recent years, the expansion of Sling Pilot Academy, a flight school based at the airport, has sparked concerns among residents about aircraft noise. In response, the City Council implemented restrictions to mitigate noise. A group of residents that has clashed with the pilots on noise matters, though, still opposed the airport’s closure, saying it would exacerbate the existing issue.
If approved, Councilmemebr Jon Kaji’s proposed land use study would have investigated transforming Torrance Municipal Airport from a general aviation use to a master planned land development project. The study, as outlined in a staff report, would have assessed the airport’s impact on the city’s economy, finances and neighborhood.
But the proposal elicited concerns from community members, especially from pilots, many of whom reached out to city officials to express their love for the airport.
“My local airport played a significant role in inculcating my love of aviation when I was a kid,” Garrett Reisman, a NASA veteran and former SpaceX official, wrote in a letter dated Tuesday. “And helped to set me on a path toward becoming an aerospace engineer working at Space Park in Redondo Beach, then as a NASA Astronaut, and then as an executive at SpaceX.”
Some of the pilots accused Kaji, who owns a real estate company, of covertly planning a housing development at the airport through the land use proposal.
Kaji, however, denied the accusation during the Tuesday council meeting.
“Since taking this position on the council, I haven’t been involved in the practice of real estate,” Kaji said. “I’ve put my time into serving as a councilmember in District 1. My only development plans are when I’m going to plant my tomatoes this spring.”
The reason for his proposal, Kaji said, was to explore all potential assets to address various challenges, including the city’s financial issues and pension fund obligations.
But he didn’t win the backing of his colleagues on the land use study idea, as the majority chose to distance themselves from the proposal.
Councilmember Asam Sheikh, for example, called the airport “a very valuable asset to our city.”
Councilmember Mike Griffiths, on the other hand, suggested tabling the land use study idea and allowing the council’s approved aircraft noise regulations to play out.
Initially, Councilmember Aurelio Mattucci appeared to side with Kaji, arguing that the land use study will probably “improve what we have there” — but he then voted against the proposal.
“I would support the land use study, if I felt like there was some kind of concurrence here,” Mattucci said, “but I don’t think we have it tonight.”
The final vote to reject the land use study was 6-1, with Kaji being the only one dissenting.
The panel, though, concurred with a suggestion from Councilmember Sharon Kalani to bring together interested parties, including airport users and residents — and possibly a third-party facilitator — to create a 10-year vision plan.
Such a plan, Kalani said, would ensure the airport continues “to be a member of our community.”
Councilmember Bridgett Lewis proposed including current city commissioners and committee members, while Mayor George Chen suggested involving city staffers in the conversation.
“We really need a serious, all out attack effort to nail this,” Chen said. “And everyone (who) needs to have skin in the game on this, it’s got to be a commitment that we are going to do this and make this better, and it’s got to be validated and it’s got to have teeth on it.”