The long-awaited and thrice-delayed closure of Rialto Airport and the transfer of the sheriff’s department aviation wing to San Bernardino International Airport turned a crucial corner this week.
The governmental entity overseeing San Bernardino International Airport on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 entered into a mutual release and satisfaction agreement with the city of Rialto and the county of San Bernardino that is aimed at moving the San Bernardino County sheriff’s aviation fleet from Rialto Municipal Airport to the grounds of the former Norton Air Force Base, now called San Bernardino International Airport.
The civilian conversion of Norton is being overseen by a joint powers authority composed of representatives from the county of San Bernardino and the cities of Colton, Highland, Loma Linda and San Bernardino known as the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, which is also goes by its acronym, SBIAA.
In 2004, the city of Rialto resolved to shutter Rialto Airport as an aviation facility and proceed with its redevelopment. That would have required the departure of all of its aviation-related tenants, the most significant of which is the sheriff’s department, which operates ten helicopters and four airplanes from the 600-acre facility in north Rialto. Rialto officials envisioned transforming the airport property into both residential and commercial subdivisions. The city had hoped to begin to phase the airport out of operation beginning in 2007 and complete the process by 2010, but that conversion was slowed by the economic downturn. The city has, however, succeeded in lining up Lewis Properties, the corporate successor to Lewis Homes, to undertake the conversion of the property, though actual groundbreaking is as many as three years away by some estimates.
A further delay in transferring the sheriff’s aviation operation to San Bernardino International came about as a consequence of missteps taken by the former contract developer of San Bernardino International Airport, Scot Spencer, whose management of the aerodrome was in large measure focused upon promoting several of the businesses he had an interest in which were housed at San Bernardino International, including SBD Aircraft Services, Norton Aviation Maintenance Services, Unique Aviation, San Bernardino Airport Management, SBD Properties LLC, KCP Leasing and Services, SBAMTechnics, and SBD Aircraft Services, to the detriment of other aviation-related companies and concerns located at the airport.
Last year, the sheriff’s department contemplated remaining in Rialto for at least another two years, but because of the need for upgrades to the sheriff’s Rialto aviation facilities and the expense those would entail, it was determined that it would be a more economical move long term to transfer operations to San Bernardino International Airport. Further complications at San Bernardino International, including the FBI’s serving of search warrants in September at SBIAA headquarters and a number of entities associated with Spencer, including his business offices and home as well as the resignation of former San Bernardino International Airport Authority Executive Director Don Rogers, delayed that transition.
This week, under the direction of Rogers’s successor, A.J. Wilson, the board for the authority got around to effectuating a compact that will allow the contemplated changes to proceed.
The Rialto Municipal Airport was owned by the Rialto Redevelopment Agency. The redevelopment agency, in accordance with the plan previously worked out amongst county, Rialto and SBIAA officials, was to sell the Rialto airport to a consortium of developers led by the Lewis Group of Companies at a price approaching $34 million. That money was then to have passed through to the city of Rialto. From that pool of available revenue, the city of Rialto was supposed to kick down $4.2 million to the sheriff’s department for the sale of the sheriff’s department facility at Rialto Municipal Airport. That cash would then be used toward the $5.2 million cost of constructing the sheriff’s new aviation facility at San Bernardino International Airport, which is to include mitigating impacts on any nearby uses there.
The chosen location for the permanent sheriff’s aviation headquarters in San Bernardino will now undergo as much as 18 months worth of grading, adaptation and new construction, including a hangar suitable for helicopters. Meanwhile, the sheriff will set up a temporary aviation headquarters in a modular building between the fuel farm and the Million Air corporate jet servicing operation.
The modular building will remain in place after the sheriff’s department moves to permanent digs and will be used for other aviation related purposes. The $200,000 per year lease the sheriff’s department will pay the airport authority includes use privileges of existing maintenance facilities at the airport.
Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Wilson told the board members, “The proposed mutual release and satisfaction agreement acknowledges key commitments on behalf of the city of Rialto and the county of San Bernardino related to the closure of the Rialto Municipal Airport and the relocation of the sheriff to a new facility in San Bernardino. Specifically, the agreement sets forth the dollar value of the relocation payment to the county at $4,200,000, identifies SBIAA as a third party beneficiary for the receipt of said funds, and provides for an early payment from Rialto to SBIAA equal to $375,000 to allow SBIAA to initiate the preparation of plans and specifications for the construction of the new facility for the sheriff.”
While all of the issues relating to the eventuality of the sheriff’s department relocating its helicopters at San Bernardino International Airport now appear to have been taken care of, the city of Rialto is yet beset with complications stemming from the state of California’s move last year to dissolve all of the municipal redevelopment agencies throughout the state. The city of Rialto has declared itself the successor agency to its redevelopment agency, and is claiming ownership of the Rialto Municipal Airport. Nevertheless, Rialto will need to have a state oversight board sign off on the city’s right to dispose of the property as it deems fit, in this case by selling the property for roughly $34 million to the development consortium. The state could yet reject that proposal and insist on a dissolution or liquidation sale with some or all of the money being confiscated by the state.