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 A summary of the Sunroad controversy Minimize

San Diego's Montgomery Field, just a few miles north of downtown, represents a victory over incompatible land uses. Aviation supporters, led by AOPA's Airport Support Network volunteer Rick Beach and the Community Airfields Association of San Diego (CAASD), created a coalition that exposed the incompatible land use and forced the developer to lower the 12-story Sunroad Centrum office tower.

The City of San Diego, which failed to adopt a 2004 Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan with height restrictions derived from the FAR Part 77 obstruction standards, issued a permit for the full 180-foot height. After construction began, the FAA determined that any height over 160 feet that close to the runway was a harzard to air navigation, affecting pilots flying in visual conditions, in instrument approaches and when maneuvering close to the runway.

The developer built it to full height anyway. CAASD engaged the California Division of Aeronautics, who determined the hazard violated state law; the City Attorney's Office, who pressured for a stop work order and filed suit against the developer to abate the hazard; the FAA, who investigated the developer's failure to provide adequate notice; the AOPA, who informed the City of consequences of ignoring the FAA; and the local media, who focused stories on how the City allowed this to happen.

Ultimately, the difference of 20 feet in height was overshadowed by outrage over the influence of developers on accommodating City officials, including the Mayor, and senior planning and development officials. Responding to local activism, a constant barrage of unfavorable media coverage and effective legal strategies, the Mayor belatedly ordered restitution to the lower, non-hazardous limit of 160 feet.  The developer, a year after topping out at its hazardous height, finally acquiesced and began deconstruction.

This incompatible land use led to two senior City staff resignations, interim procedures ensuring FAA notification, reorganizing airport jurisdiction away from the City's real estate division, and developing new land use plans.


 Sunroad Lawsuit Minimize

CAASD brought into City of San Diego lawsuit against Sunroad Enterprises

DSC00298_1.jpgAs of January 10, 2007, the City Attorney of San Diego has added AOPA and the Community Airfields Association of San Diego as real parties of interest in their lawsuit against the developer of the Sunroad Centrum 12 office building.

CAASD intends to maintain an archive of relevant materials that explain the history and circumstances surrounding the building of an office tower within 1 mile of Montgomery Field that pokes up high enough to be judged by the FAA as a hazard to air navigation.  As aviation users, we are concerned that VFR and IFR operations at Montgomery Field are negatively impacted by allowing the construction to proceed to completion and occupation.

For a timeline and index to the archive, see Sunroad Timeline and Archive page.


 Who/What is Sunroad? Minimize

People keep asking: Who is Sunroad?  And the answer is quite complicated.  Aaron Feldman is the CEO of Sunroad Enterprises but there are many pieces to the web of businesses, partnerships, asset management companies, etc.

Car Dealerships

  • Toyota Chula Vista
  • Pacific Honda
  • Kearny Mesa Ford
  • Scion Chula Vista
  • Kearny Mesa Infiniti
  • Kearny Mesa Subaru
  • Kearny Mesa Hyundai
  • Kearny Mesa Kia
  • Toyota California


  • Sunroad Resort Marina

Golf Courses

  • Maderas Golf Club

Real Estate Holdings

  • Sunroad Centrum 12 (office tower near Montgomeryf Field)
  • Sunroad Promenade (residential near Montgomery Field)
  • Sunroad Harbor Island (hotels near Lindberg Field)
  • Sunroad Otay Mesa (mixed use complex near Brown Field)
  • Sunroad Corporate Center, 4445 Eastgate Mall
  • Sunroad Plaza I, II, III, East, Mission Valley


 Sunroad Lawsuit Minimize

Table of Contents
  1. The Buildings
  2. The Dispute
  3. What's At Stake
  4. Federal Regulations
  5. State of California Law
  6. Local Land Use around Airports
  7. The Developer Claims No Threat to Public Safety
  8. Explaining Circling Approaches

The Buildings

What you see being constructed is the first of three high-rise office towers in the Sunroad Centrum project at the intersection of Kearny Villa Road and Lightwave Drive adjacent to Highway 163.  When completed, the project will provide over 1,000,000 square feet of the best kind (Class A) of office space, the first for the Kearny Mesa community.

The first building, Sunroad Centrum I, is 12 stories and plans indicate that the roof and equipment penthouse will be 601 feet above mean sea level (MSL).  The next two buildngs are taller at 14 and 16 stories, with plans for Sunroad Centrum II showing 645 feet MSL, and Sunroad Centrum III probably even higher!

The Dispute

The FAA determined that Sunroad Centrum I is a hazard to air navigation because it is too tall in close proximity to an airport, Montgomery Field.  California law says you can't construct a hazard to air navigation without a permit from Caltrans Division of Aeronautics, and none has been issued.  The City of San Diego did issue a permit to construct the building without concern for the height because at that location there are no City zoning or land use restrictions due to a nearby airport.  However, the City Attorney claims that a hazard to air navigation is a public safety issue and through the police powers of the City can act to take away the hazard.

The developer of course wants to proceed.

What's at Stake?

For the developer, over $100,000,000, which is an estimate of the value of the office space on the floors that are above the height limit used by the FAA.  (each floor is about 25,000 square feet, the three buildings have 2, 4 and 6 floors too high, and if estimated at $400/square foot that totals $120 million).

For pilots and their passengers flying into Montgomery Field, the increased risk of an accident because the building is the tallest object within 2 miles of the airport.

For the community, the tradeoff between developing office space against public safety risks from a possibly fatal accident.

Federal Regulations

The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulates the National Air Transportation System.  Montgomery Field is designated as a reliever airport in the system to accommodate demand for people arriving or departing from San Diego who would otherwise need to use a commercial airport.  Montgomery Field has over 230,000 landings or takeoffs a year, about one plane coming or going every minute from 7 am to 7 pm.

The airspace around airports is protected by regulations (FAR Part 77) that define imaginary surfaces around runways to determine if terrain or a building or a tower pokes through and creates an obstruction.  Those obstructions that affect airplane operations are designated as a hazard to air navigation.  Other FAA regulations determine what to do with the hazard, such as mounting red lights and painting red and white checkerboard patterns, and what to do about procedures to keep airplanes away from the hazards.

The Sunroad building rises above the FAR Part 77 imaginary surface, which at that location is a horizontal surface 150 feet above the airport elevation and extends out 10,000 feet from the closest runway.  The Sunroad building is 3,627 feet from runway 23 at Montgomery Field, easily within the boundary.  And the planned height of 601 ft MSL exceeds the horizontal surface height of 576 ft MSL (150 ft above the airport reference point of 426 ft MSL).  And airplanes operate over the building in good weather while following the traffic pattern for runway 10L-28R and in bad weather when approaching the airport under the clouds and circling to land on any of the runways 5, 10L, and 23.  The FAA determined that building to be an obstruction that is a hazard to air navigation.

FAA jurisdiction is limited.  It can determine there is a hazard but it can't say don't build it.  But California can.

State of California Law

California picks up where the FAA leaves off. 

California Public Utilities Code section 21659 says you can't build a hazard to air navigation without a permit from the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics under penalty of a fine and/or jail.  And California requires local planning agencies, like the City of San Diego, to establish land use compatibility plans for developments around airports that will address concerns for noise, safety, overflights, and airspace protection.

According to Caltrans, since this law was introduced, never before has a developer built something that the FAA determined was a hazard.

Local Land Use Around Airports

So, why is a tall building so close to an airport given a building permit from the City of San Diego?  Because of vesting development rights and out-of-date land use compatibility plans.

At Montgomery Field, there are two land use compatibility plans: one adopted in 1996 by the Airport Land Use Commission for San Diego and enacted by the City of San Diego through an Airport Environs Overlay Zone ordinance, the other adopted in 2004 but never enacted by the City of San Diego.  Both plans define an Airport Influence Area surrounding Montgomery Field.  For Sunroad's project, the boundary is Lightwave Avenue, where property south is restricted and property north is not restricted.  The 2004 plan also requires compliance with FAR Part 77 restrictions, but one can interpret the closer-in Airport Influence Area as controlling the extent rather than the 10,000 ft boundary.

Everyone agrees that developments take a long time and when rules change some accommodations are necessary for work already done in good faith.  Sunroad claims that their project started with a development agreement from the late 1990's.  And the City of San Diego issued building permits consistent with the lack of restrictions in the 1996 land use compatibility plan.

The Developer Claims No Threat to Public Safety

Sunroad Enterprises claims their building is no threat to public safety, that they are fully committed to public safety and they would not have built if it was a public safety hazard and if the City had not issued all the required permits.

Their logic goes like this.  Yes, the FAA determined the Sunroad Centrum I building was a hazard to air navigation. Yes, the FAA raised the circling minimums for bad weather operations through a notice to airmen. Therefore, a hazard no longer exists.  Let us build our building. 

Unfortunately, raising the minimums reduces the number of bad weather days when airplanes can land at Montgomery Field.  Minimum cloud levels measure how low the clouds can be when you fly under them to land.  And it does nothing for the 150 planes a day that fly over in good weather.

Furthermore, Sunroad proposes to "participate" in installing an instrument approach for runway 10L, which they claim would "eliminate the need for the circling approach now at issue."  Unfortunately, circling approaches would still be required to land on runway 5-23 in some bad weather conditions.


 Animated Circling Approach over Sunroad Buildings Minimize

How do you explain to non-pilots the safety issues of building tall buildings near airports?

The circling approach into Montgomery Field places fast-moving airplanes immediately over the Sunroad Centrum office complex, where three high-rise buildings are planned, one 12 stories, another 14 and the final building 16 stories tall -- often in bad weather with winds, rain and low visibility.

The FAA determines buildings to be hazards when they penetrate a horizontal surface 150 feet above the runways within 10,000 feet of the airport. This slide show explains the various heights involved and how the Sunroad Centrum project is planned to penetrate those surfaces, creating hazards to air navigation.

CAASD presents an animated fly-over that tracks the path of a circling approach flown by a pilot in a general aviation airplane underneath simulated layer of clouds.  The bright yellow line approximates the flight path, both in horizontal location near the airport and in elevation above the buildings.

Animation is a Quicktime movie, 4mb, 0:20 seconds in length.  Thanks to Google Earth for the tools to create this quickly.


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