Ever Expanding Chino Airport Threatened By Its Own Success

While even the most wishful of those who prefer that it not be there recognize that Chino Airport will likely remain in place for most of the rest of the 21st Century, the 83-year old aerodrome is under a round of attack from both within and without.
The San Bernardino County Department of Airports runs the facility. That carries with it some hefty responsibility, and a considerable degree of expense. To maintain its viability as a takeoff and landing field, the county has and will very likely continue to fork over a staggering amount of money, including legal settlements with nearby property owners who maintain they have been negatively impacted by its presence. Furthermore, the ghosts of the past, in the form of the cavalier storage and disposal of ordnance and aviation related materials, chemicals and fuels when the airport was home to military aviation units during the Second World War and thereafter, haunt the airport and the ground and groundwater below and around it in the form of contamination that must be remediated. And notably, some of the activity on the airport grounds, which has been very successful at garnering and generating public interest in aviation in general and Chino Airport in particular, has rubbed some of airport’s tenants the wrong way, and they have chosen to initiate legal action over the matter.
Jim and Annie Nyenhuis, who have worked in the dairy industry in California for more than six decades, have owned and operated a 58 acre dairy on property just east of the airport since 1966. They emigrated from Holland to the United States after the World War II, and eventually gravitated to Chino.
Zoning and land use in the area where they live has shifted over the years. While many of their neighbors had previously seen financial benefit from the those changes, the Nyenhuises’ property was saddled with restrictions that were previously of no consequence to them, since they were not interested in using it for any purpose other than as a dairy. At the time they came to Chino, most of the nearby property was dairy land and there was little prospect or need that the property be aggressively developed. Indeed, the property became part of the Chino Agricultural Preserve, which was formed in 1968 under the auspices of California’s Williamson Act — a 1965 law that was intended to preserve California farmland and to serve as a hedge against urban sprawl. The law granted substantial tax breaks to property owners agreeing to restrict their land to agricultural uses for at least 10 years. By 1970, the Chino Valley was the source for most of Southern California’s milk as well as a major supplier of cheese for a much larger geographical area. Along the way the Chino Valley had become a haven to many dairy farmers of Dutch or Portuguese descent, such as the Nyenhuises, who were displaced by the urbanization of southeast Los Angeles County.
By the mid-1980s, growing numbers of dairy farmers in the preserve wanted out, as the local industry was itself being subjected to the same pressures that had been brought to bear on dairyman who had been forced to pull up the stakes of their Los Angeles County operations two and three decades before. Land speculators and developers eyeing the property and envisioning it as residential subdivisions supported politicians at the municipal and county levels intent on adhering to a dairy-busting agenda that in time spelled the end of the preserve as a lasting entity.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, though some of the county’s land use professionals saw the desirability of maintaining the preserve’s scaled-down dairy industry as a hedge against the region’s burgeoning urbanization, the county’s elected leadership was heavily influenced by developmental interests, who were also the major providers of political contributions. With a few exceptions, county supervisors leaned in favor of breaking up the preserve.
In 1986, the county took the first step toward deconstructing the Williamson Act’s applicability in the Chino Valley. By 1997, half of the dairies that had been operating in the preserve at its peak had left. Jousting between Ontario and Chino over annexation of the preserve began. In 1999, while there were still 140 dairies operating in Chino Valley, the city of Ontario annexed nearly 8,200 acres of the 15,200 remaining acres in the preserve. Chino laid claim to the other 7,000. The county, for the most part, alternately passively and actively accepted the inevitability of the pending urbanization. Ontario drew up master plans for development of 31,000 homes, 5 million square feet of retail space and 5 million square feet of industrial space.
Chino designated over 400 acres for industrial development and earmarked 2,000 acres for new residences, with complementary plans for commercial development. But that anticipated development came only in fits and starts. By 2005, the number of dairies had dwindled to 70. But with the eventual transformation of the land away from its agricultural heyday under way in earnest, some dairymen, such as Jim Nyenhuise were hanging in there.
Beginning in 1989 or thereabouts, gradually increasing limitations were placed upon that portion of the Nyenhuises’ property immediately adjacent to the airport as aviation-related activity at the airport has increased.
In 2015, the couple, then aged 85 and 79, who had resisted for so long joining with the trend of selling their property for development and moving on, were coming up against the reality that they could not continue with the dairy operation indefinitely. To the west of their dairy is the airport. To the north is a commercial development. Many of the couple’s option had been foreclosed to them because of the limitations imposed on them because of the flight path over their land. They filed suit against San Bernardino County, maintaining in their lawsuit that the lion’s share of their property has been restricted from development – having been declared to be what is termed a no-build zone – as a consequence of it lying directly beneath the landing approach for the airport.
Guided by their attorney, John C. Murphy, they held off the county’s motion for summary judgment, which was denied by the court in February 2016. Signaling their determination, they proceeded with the deposition of San Bernardino County Department of Airports Director James Jenkins. They bypassed going to trial on the matter, opting instead for arbitration. Now retired Judge Kennedy, once the presiding judge overseeing San Bernardino County Superior Court, mediated the case. After the Nyenhuises ultimately overrode several lowball offers made by the county and there was back and forth over the value of the land, both parties ultimately came to a consensus on the value of the property: $815,517.24 per acre, or $47.3 million for all 58 acres. Worked into the deal was that the county would pay Murphy $480,780 for his legal fees and cover Nyenhuises’ moving expenses.
“We sued the county in 2015 under an inverse condemnation theory and after two years of litigation, they settled,” said Murphy. “The story in a nutshell is the county refused to acknowledge that the overflights, in which you had jet planes flying at a very low altitude just above over 1,000 head of cattle, were impacting the property. In 2012, the county put together a master plan for the airport in which they put 40 of the Nyenhuises’ acres into an RPZ, a runway protection zone. The county kept that in draft form until we sued them. The county was not very cooperative. The master plan effectively deprived us of any development possibilities. Ultimately, after a year of litigation, they acknowledged they owed the Neyhuises money. The question was how much. Our land use experts included Nick Johnson, who is a land use expert for a number of airport authorities. There are a lot of industrial projects in the area, distribution centers coming in, a lot of concrete tilt-ups. It’s amazing. There are some interesting sales of industrial suitable properties, including sales of county owned land for distribution centers. We were able to use those to convince the appraiser the land was worth over $800,000 per acre. The determination was the property in total was worth $47.8 million. We were paid two weeks ago.”
Murphy said the county never offered to purchase an easement and that “The county required 40 of the almost 60 acres for the runway protection, leaving close to 20 acres that were not required.” The deal that was closed pertained to the county’s purchase of all of the property. “That worked for us because it would be very difficult to run a dairy farm on such a reduced parcel.” Murphy said. The only thing yet needing to be worked out, he said, is where the cattle will go. “We have a meeting with the county’s relocation agent next week. That’s the last thing we need to pin down.”
Whether there are yet other properties in the area similarly impacted by the airport, Murphy said, “is up in the air.”
From the county’s standpoint, dealing with the Nyenhuises represented the challenge of the airport’s impacts beyond the property upon which it is located. Another difficulty the county faces with regard to the airport is contamination, both on the airport grounds and beyond them. In the past, trichloroethylene was commonly used as a solvent in an aviation context. Trichloroethylene is unstable in the presence of metal over prolonged exposure. At low concentrations it is relatively non-irritating to the respiratory tract but at higher concentrations results in an acceleration in respiration, cardiac arrhythmias and cranial nerve dysfunction. Whereas previously, scientists concluded that trichloroethylene was likely a co-carcinogen, meaning it did not act on its own to promote the development of cancer but acted in concert with other substances to prompt the formation of tumors, in 2014, the International Agency for Research on Cancer updated its findings, saying there is sufficient evidence to indicate it causes kidney cancer in humans as well as some evidence it instigates cancer of the liver and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Trichloroethylene is not the only contaminant at Chino Airport. On the afternoon of July 22, 2010, during trenching for installation of a storm drain pipeline for a new Southern California Edison facility, the first three of 51 drums containing napalm were discovered to have been buried at the airport. Many of the drums did not have lids and contained soil on top of a tan resinous material. The contents of the drums were field tested using a chemical identification kit and determined to be a non-explosive, flammable, non-corrosive, organic resin-type material.
For a quarter of a century efforts to mitigate groundwater pollution emanating from the airport has been ongoing under the supervision of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.
On October 31, 1990, the Regional Water Quality Board issued Clean-up and Abatement Order No. 90-134 to the County of San Bernardino for suspected contamination of groundwater beneath Chino Airport. On October 17, 2006, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved a $200,000 contract with Tetra Tech, Inc. to conduct a groundwater assessment of the water table at the Chino Airport and investigate possible sources of contamination from the airport property.
The Planes of Fame Museum has been a feature at Chino Airport since 1957. For the past 24 years it has sponsored an airshow, featuring vintage planes. This year, the museum was looking forward to is most impressive aerial spectacular yet, with over 40 historic aircraft, including F-35 Lightning II Heritage Flight, B-25 Mitchell, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, Pacific, European, Korean & Vietnam flight displays, Sanders Sea Fury Aerobatics, Rob Harrison the Tumbling Bear, Gregory Colyer T-33 Aerobatics, the Jelly Belly Airplane, and N9MB Flying Wing set to participate on May 6 & May 7.
But that event may not come off this year because of protests from other aviation enthusiasts, in particular, tenants at the airport.
Yanks Air Museum, Flying Tigers Aviation, SOCAL MRO and Zangeneh Aeronautics filed a lawsuit to halt the 25th annual show scheduled for May 6 and 7 because it hinders their businesses. All of the plaintiffs maintain access to their facilities is obstructed during the run up to, during and for two to three days after the airshow, which has been attended by 17,000 to 21,000 over the last six years. The businesses sustain losses during that period, with Yanks Air Museum seeing a diminution of customers rather than an uptick. Flying Tigers Aviation sees a drop in the sale of aviation fuel during the show. Customers are diverted from and in some cases unable to reach Zangeneh Aeronautics.
The flight schools at the airport are closed during the festivities and flight operations are grounded. Relations between neighbors and hangar occupants have suffered.
In a prepared statement, Planes of Fame officials defended the event, calling it a stimulus to all of those operations on the airport wishing to participate as well as to the commercial businesses sprouting up in that area of Chino.
“The annual air show is one of the few remaining events in Southern California where visitors from around the world can enjoy the sights and sounds of aircraft from the Golden Age of Aviation flying overhead,” Planes of Fame said. “Each year, the air show attracts thousands of families, aviation enthusiasts, and others who come together to witness rare and historic aircraft, as well as some of the most talented aviators take to the skies. The Planes of Fame Air Show is considered one of the top five air shows in the country.”
Planes of Fames said it will answer the legal challenge to ensure the airshow goes on.
The matter will be heard next Thursday, April 20, in a San Bernardino County Superior Court in San Bernardino. –Mark Gutglueck

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