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San Jose's Reid-Hillview Airport, set to close in 2031, faces pressure to shut now

San Jose residents want Reid-Hillview Airport shut down years earlier than planned
San Jose residents want Reid-Hillview Airport shut down years earlier than planned 03:44

SAN JOSE -- Saturday's Community Festival at Reid-Hillview Airport in east San Jose drew thousands of people eager to get a close-up view of a variety of flying machines.

Shei Sutton said the reaction of her 4-year-old niece Tahliya helped her feel like a kid again, too.

"After a while, you get on a plane and it's not a big deal but having to come and see the actual airplanes inside and then see the joy in their eyes -- it's great, you know?" Sutton said.

Aviation fan David Hovey said it helped that the event was happening at a smaller community airport like Reid-Hillview.

"It's more fun because they're smaller and everything's in a smaller space and, yeah, it's not as busy and it's just a great event," he said.

Not everyone shared his enthusiasm.

At a park across the street from the runway, a group of neighborhood activists gathered to renew their demand that the airport be closed. They said a county-commissioned study shows elevated levels of lead in children living within a half-mile of the airport.  Even though leaded fuel has been banned at Reid-Hillview for three years, they say airplanes are still burning it.

"The lead has been banned but the pilots will fly to Mineta, they'll fly to Palo Alto and they bring the leaded fuel back to our community," said Maria Reyes, a homeowner who is leading the effort to close the airport. "This is not fair. Our children need to be protected."

Back at the airport, pilot Diane Gaskill acknowledged that owners of some aircraft are, in fact, filling up with leaded fuel elsewhere.

"They have to! They don't have a choice. (Unleaded fuel) would destroy the engine," she said. "(Lead) protects the engine against misfiring, firing too soon and burning a hole in the top of the piston. That's what could happen -- very serious damage."

The irony is that Reid-Hillview is already scheduled to be closed in 2031 when an agreement between Santa Clara County and the FAA expires.

San Jose city councilmember Peter Ortiz said it's important to keep the pressure on so they don't backtrack on that plan.

But if unleaded fuel is hazardous at Reid Hillview, what about those who live near Mineta International?

Ortiz said he would not advocate closing that airport.

"There are neighborhoods but they have distance," he said. "They don't have individuals right here in the middle. They don't have small planes flying over the families over there."

For the county, the health issue may not be the real reason to close the airport. While neighbors would like to see a park with swimming pools and open space, the pilots suspect the county is eyeing the land as a prime location for high-density housing developments.

"That's all San Jose is interested in having built at the moment so that's what the residents are going to get here," said a member of an organization called CAAPSO, for Community and Airport Partnership for Safe Operations. "And they actually don't want that. They want this turned into some big park and open space and the thing they don't realize is, airports are open space."

Reid-Hillview has been here for more than 80 years but, since the 1980s, there have been efforts by opponents -- including Santa Clara County -- to shut it down. The neighbors want the airport to close immediately. The pilots hope it will stay open forever.

The county may have its own reasons for wanting the facility to fly off into the sunset eight years from now.

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