South Valley border dispute
Chris Prevost and Cheryl Carlucci at Sonoma Valley Airport, left, are at odds with Leland Fly Fishing owner Josh Frazier, right.
In this case the old adage that good fences make good neighbors could not be more untrue. And we’re talking about a very good, at least in the sense of being sturdy, fence. The fence separates Leland Fly Fishing from Sonoma Valley Airport, and has turned once good neighbors into mortal enemies, locked into a spiral of seemingly unending hostility.
The fence in question is about 4-feet tall, made of solid wood logs, and, at its most contentious point, maybe a hundred feet long, zigzagging across an emergency runway overrun.
“That fence is deemed to be a pilot-killer by the DOT,” said Sonoma Valley Airport owner Chris Prevost. In order to operate safely, runways are mandated by the Deparment of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics to be kept completely clear and object free for 200 feet (called the object free zone or runway clear zone). The so-called runway protection zone (RPZ), on which DOT enforces strict regulations, extends 1,200 feet from the end of the runway.
During a July 18, 2012, inspection of the airport, done at Prevost’s request, aviation safety officer Amy Choi found three sections of log fence near the east-west runway to be in violation and recommended their removal in a letter to Prevost. The fencing though was on land owned by Josh Frazier, owner of Leland Fly Fishing, and, as was most of the RPZ, out of the airport’s control.
Control of the runway protection zone has long been an issue at the Sonoma Valley Airport, predating both Frazier’s development of the adjoining property and Prevost’s ownership of the airport.
Leland first installed the fence at the behest of the airport’s owners, Prevost and Sheryl Carlucci in the summer of 2011. Prior to that time, identical log fences circled the perimeter of the fly fishing ranch, but did not separate it from the airport, which meant guests at Leland could wander onto the runway. It was when one did – to play ball with his Lab puppy during an event at Leland – that tensions about the border flared up.
“What we had was his patrons all over the airport,” Prevost told the Index-Tribune. “We had people playing ball with their dogs and wandering all over the airport right over there on the end of the runway with airplanes landing and taking off.”
Frazier was as shocked at the ball-playing incident as Prevost. “It’s just crazy stuff that you wouldn’t think a normal person would think of doing,” he told the Index-Tribune. “After that I called up Chris and Sheryl and had a meeting with them and said ‘guys, you’re right, I’m sorry.’ There’s no controlling the public. And that’s when we decided at that meeting together to put that fence up.”
Prevost, at that point, enlisted the help of the DOT in providing guidance on where to put the fence. Aviation safety officer Michael Smith advised Prevost in a July 2011 email, “If you could persuade him to go out to 280 feet from the end of your runway, he could put up a 4 foot fence. … if a 4.5 foot fence ends up in your primary surface, 200 feet from the end of your runway, you are accepting liability for all pilots who use that particular runway.” (Smith declined to comment for this story.)
How the fence ended up at 238 feet away from the end of the runway, as was found by DOT’s Choi, is somewhat murky, but all parties agree that Prevost marked where the fence should go with orange cones.
At about this time, a casual handshake agreement whereby the airport let Leland use its pond to fish for bass also fell apart. Prevost indicated that his complaints about Leland parking cars and letting its guests wander into the runway clear zone had fallen on deaf ears. In a July 2011 email to Leland employee Andrew Arnerich, Prevost wrote, “Please do not use our property. I refuse to constantly be put at risk …”
If not chummy, the relationship between Leland and the airport before that summer had at least been amiable. Even after the cessation of the pond-use agreement it remained civil for a time. As recently as September 2011 Frazier had reached out to Prevost to write a letter to the Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) on the fly fishing ranch’s behalf. Prevost flatly turned him down.
Both men seem wounded rather than angry (though there is surely anger at times) by the rift and its fallout. Both parties seem convinced that the other is intent on getting rid them.
Prevost received a call from his lawyer, Daniela Pavone, in November 2011, after Frazier’s own lawyer Bob Haroche sent a letter alleging a lengthy list of violations at the airport to DOT. Prevost said his lawyer told him that DOT legal counsel Ryan Bain said she’s received a petition here to have the airport fully investigated. “That’s a friendly neighbor,” Prevost remarked with a bit of sarcasm. He said Bain confirmed his belief that Frazier wanted to get rid of the airport, “Her exact words were, ‘They intend to close your airport,’” he said.
Frazier said the letter wasn’t a form of retribution for the many times the airport has called the county to complain about the incompatibility of his business with the airport, but that it was intended to bring everything out into the open. “For seven years everything was fine. For four years we had a pond and it was fine. And for three years we were teaching classes and it was fine. And then it changed to we had to be relocated,” he said. “And I would like to get back to the fine part. And if I can figure out what changed when he went from fine to ‘extinguish Leland from existence,' maybe we could solve it.”
Frazier has been addressing many of his problems. The opening has not been smooth, and “This has been eight years of hell,” he says of the permitting process. His struggles go back to the grading permit he submitted for the pond and extend through more than $50,000 in fines he’s had to pay the county for permit violations and the use permit for the property he still is trying to finalize.
And surely he has not always used the best judgment. He says he’s made mistakes in the permit process. And then there was the skeet shooting and the high-powered rifles.
“When he was firing guns, there were shells raining down on the roofs of the hangers,” said Prevost. Leland stopped shooting after a piece on ABC with TV news personality Dan Noyes showed the target range and brought it to the county’s attention.
More recently Frazier has been scarred by the sometimes bruising scuffles with the airport. “What they’ve called us, and what they’ve done and how they’ve hurt my business and done all that stuff – it is tough to swallow,” he said, “but rightly or wrongly, I look at life at what we can do tomorrow and not what we did yesterday.”
“We don’t have anything against him having a business and doing what he wants to do,” said Prevost, but he remains steadfast in both his belief that the fly fishing business is incompatible with the airport and that Frazier is somehow bullying the county into allowing it, “He illegally built it and he’s trying to shove it down their throats,” he said.
Karin Theriault, the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) planner working on the Leland project, seems nearly as exhausted by it as Frazier does. She is very plain about the fact the county asked Leland to stop holding fly fishing lessons when they noticed advertisements for events and lessons online before her office ever heard from the airport.
PRMD first heard from Leland supporters, who didn’t understand why the county had asked that lessons be halted (Theriault says it’s because the permit process and Board of Zoning Adjustments review had not been complete). But she said her office received “lots and lots and lots of letters,” from Leland supporters. “Then we started hearing more from the airport and its supporters saying they want the county to deny the project.” Many worried that Leland’s pond (which is actually much smaller than the airport’s own bass pond) was a hazard. Theriault seemed particularly disturbed by a photo of a dead goose sent to her.
The much-debated ponds have been the subject of heated arguments among airport supporters, who posit that Leland’s man-made water feature endangers pilot’s lives because it could attract water fowl, and those who support Leland who often point to the airport’s much larger, 10-acre pond. The Leland pond is significantly smaller at less than three acres and is mitigated, designed not to attract birds. There is not a reed or stray piece of vegetation on it and it’s surrounded by gravel, whereas the airport’s bass pond is a well-documented bird habitat that is much closer to the runway. The bass pond is decades old, so it is grandfathered in, and has never been noted by DOT.
Carlucci and Prevost say they would like to fill in their pond, but cannot get a permit to do so, and argue that adding more water features only exacerbates an already dangerous situation. Leland counters that mitigated water features are acceptable within 500 feet of an airport. DOT had no comment officially about the pond, but has issued reports to the county saying that it is a concern.
Tom Rusert, founder of Sonoma Birding, is very familiar with the area and says he is fond of both the fly fishing ranch and the airport. “That whole area is wetlands on a major flyway,” he said. “That small area of water isn’t going to make any difference.”
Frazier is still convinced that there is an underlying reason why the airport has opposed his operation that has nothing to do with the issues that have been raised. “It started with permits, then it went to ponds, it went to birds, it went to runway protection zones; now we’re at fences and floods sounds like it’s next,” he said.
Earlier this year the airport filed a writ trying to get the county to enforce the decision of an abatement judgment against Leland. This coincided with changes to the fence. “When we filed the writ, the fence went higher and bigger,” said Carlucci. “That was his message back to us.”
“It’s been a difficult process for us, as it always is when you have two businesses next door to one another that have disagreements,” said 1st District Supervisor Valerie Brown who has met individually with both parties multiple times. “It escalated to almost the point of no return.”
Brown allowed, “They both have very real, very significant issues that they talk about.” She’s hopeful that the dispute is moving toward a resolution, though she will no longer be in office when and if it does. She said, “Our objective right now is to have these two businesses, side-by-side, where public safety is a high priority and the businesses can operate.”
The next step is for Leland to finalize its permit use application with PRMD, which is missing reports to satisfy CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), at which point the project (without the fly fishing school or special events) will go before the Board of Zoning Adjustments and will be subject to public comment, which should happen sometime in early 2013.
When asked if the school and events could be added later, Deputy County Counsel Debbie Latham said “There’s nothing that prevents them from going back and applying for that at some later date, but it’s currently off the table.”
“We’re cleaning up our house, he can clean up his and then we can go back to being good neighbors,” Frazier said. “I think he needs some answers and he needs to know if he really has problems or not, and (the letter sent to the DOT) forces him to deal with them. He either has them or he doesn’t.”
After investigating the claims made in Haroche’s letter on behalf of Leland the DOT found no violations.
Shortly afterward, Leland began dissembling sections of the fence at the behest and strong urging of the county. By mid-December, three of the sections of fence closest to the runway had been removed and were scheduled to be replaced with frangible fencing.
After the first section came down, Carlucci was unimpressed and said there were still problematic sections. “I don’t know why they can’t complete something in one fell swoop,” she said. “Whether it’s a permit or a fence coming down. They took one section out, but the two side sections that present the hard stop.”
Haroche wanted the DOT to come to the site and explain which fences presented a problem, and had scheduled inspectors to do so (though a DOT spokesperson said an inspector would not be able to address the issue until 2013). Haroch explained he didn’t want his client to get, “whipsawed” again, alluding to the fact that the fence had been placed according to Prevost’s specifications and then asked to be moved.
It doesn’t seem likely at this point that the removal of these fences will mend the proverbial one, and that things can get back to where they were a few years ago, when Leland built what they dubbed “the bass bridge” connecting the two properties.