Expedited closure of Reid-Hillview sought
County officials also seeking to ban the sale of leaded fuel
Neighbors of Reid-Hillview Airport who have long complained about the loud buzz of aircraft flying overhead, feared that a plane could come crashing into their home and stressed about leaded aviation fuel poisoning their children scored a major victory early Wednesday.
After a five-hour public hearing and discussion, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously around midnight to ask federal regulators to hasten the closure of the 180-acre general aviation airport in East San Jose and to ban the sale of leaded aviation fuel at the site in the meantime.
“We are all in agreement that lead exposure for residents living near Reid-Hillview is unacceptable and must be alleviated,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said.
The requests could set off a lengthy and contentious battle between the county and the Federal Aviation Administration, which has ultimate authority over airport operations.
In Santa Monica, for instance, city leaders voted in 2016 to close its airport in two years. But the FAA legally challenged the action, and a subsequent settlement called for the airport to remain open until 2028 — a decade longer than the city desired.
Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith said Tuesday that he was preparing for “a challenge that
will take considerable fortitude.”
Santa Clara County supervisors in 2018 took their first step toward closing the county-owned airport when they voted to stop accepting grants from the FAA — a move that the agency strongly opposed. That decision paved the way for the county to close the airport in 2031 when its grant obligations to the FAA would expire. The supervisors’ Tuesday decision aims to expedite that process.
But in a statement Wednesday, the FAA said it is “committed to working with San Jose and Santa Clara County representatives to help the county meet its federal obligations while maintaining the use of the airport and addressing community environmental concerns,” making no indication that the agency would permit the county to shutter Reid-Hillview early.
The move comes just two weeks after the county released a new study declaring that leaded fuel used by piston-engine planes that fly in and out of the airport was contributing to elevated levels of lead in the blood of children living around Reid-Hillview.
Community members and advocates who have rallied to shut down Reid-Hillview for years cautiously celebrated the board’s decision on Wednesday.
“It’s a nice feeling to be heard, but the fight continues,” said Maricela Lechuga, a Santa Clara County airport commissioner and a resident living in the airport’s flight path.
Aviation advocates who want to keep the airport open, however, expressed disappointment in the county’s push to close it early, especially in light of their recent effort to transition planes at Reid-Hillview over to unleaded fuel, which they feel is the best
solution to lead-exposure concerns.
“This will be an expensive and unneeded litigation that will go on for years,” Michael McDonald, a private pilot who flies out of Reid-Hillview, said about the closure effort. “A significant solution is here now, and a full solution will be here long before litigation is ever completed.”
Although lead-based automobile gasoline was fully phased out more than two decades ago, the same standards were never set for aviation fuel. The piston-engine planes that use ReidHillview run on the last type of gasoline permitted to contain lead in the U.S.
Exposure to lead can hinder children’s physical and cognitive development, potentially causing lower IQ, decreased attention span and academic underperformance.
Efforts by Santa Clara County officials and East San Jose community members to shut down Reid-Hillview began nearly four decades ago.
Calls for closure of the airport heated up in recent weeks after the release of a county-commissioned study that analyzed blood samples of 17,000 children under the age of 18 who lived within a mile and a half of the countyowned airport from 2011 to 2020. The study concluded that children living closest to the airport had higher levels of lead in their blood than those living farther away.
“In this study, we show repeatedly across hundreds of independent tests that the lawful buying and selling of lead-formulated aviation gasoline appears to impose harm on innocent others,” said Sammy Zahran, a Colorado State University professor who conducted the study.
Last year, the supervisors began planning for the airport’s potential closure and developing the 180-acre property into affordable housing and other community uses. At that time, the supervisors indicated a desire to move Reid-Hillview’s aviation operations to San Martin Airport, which is situated in a more rural area about 23 miles south.
But as part of this week’s decision, the board voted against investing in an expansion of the San Martin Airport to accommodate such growth.
San Jose officials and community members living around Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport worry that Reid-Hillview’s closure and the decision not to expand San Martin Airport could have grave consequences for the South Bay’s only commercial airport and the residents who surround the area.
“San Jose International doesn’t have the capacity to absorb these aircraft or activities,” said San Jose Airport Director John Aiken.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said low-income residents of color in the city’s Washington, Alma and Gardner neighborhoods surrounding San Jose International Airport must also be considered.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t close (Reid-Hillview), but we need to do it without creating a bigger health and safety problem somewhere else,” he said.
Seeking to quell concerns about lead emissions, fuel providers at Reid-Hillview first began selling unleaded fuel to pilots this past weekend, but it’s unclear how much effect it will have on overall lead emissions around the airport. Pilots can still opt to purchase leaded fuel at this point, and the unleaded product cannot yet serve all aircraft.
Nationally, only one company has received clearance to sell its unleaded aviation gasoline, and higher-end airplanes that require premium gas cannot use the unleaded option currently available. Although a premium product has been created, it is unclear how long it will take to get through mandated testing and make it to the market.
Still, aviation business owners, private pilots and some elected officials are holding out hope that a transition to unleaded fuel will solve the lead exposure issue at Reid-Hillview and prevent the airport’s pending closure.
“The airport is not the enemy, the lead is the enemy,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman said. “Remove the lead and we’ll stop the poisoning.”