• Email
  • Print

McClellan-Palomar Airport

10 Things to Know About the Airport Plan

  1. The County of San Diego is proposing changes to McLellan-Palomar Airport, including lengthening the runway, shifting the runway to the north to increase the separation distance between the runway and the taxiway, and adding safety material at the end of the runway to help safely stop a plane that overruns the runway. 

  2. The County of San Diego owns and operates the airport. The FAA allows any aircraft that can safely operate there to use the airport. 

  3. The City of Carlsbad can’t legally stop changes within the boundary of the airport, but we can work with the County to reduce any negative impacts on our community, like traffic, noise, safety and air quality. 

  4. Under a city law passed in 1980, the Carlsbad City Council may not take any legislative action necessary to authorize an airport expansion without a vote of Carlsbad residents. 

  5. Since all of the proposed changes will occur within current airport property, the city’s legal team has concluded that the plan does not call for an expansion. Some people disagree and consider the extension of the runway to qualify as an expansion.

  6. Nevertheless, the master plan does not require the City Council to take any legislative action.

  7. Some people disagree with this because, in the past, the city issued a conditional use permit to the County for the uses on the airport and they believe that the master plan changes require the city to approve amendments to the conditional use permit. However, conditional use permits are considered administrative actions not legislative actions. Also, the County says that the conditional use permit is “voluntary” rather than binding.

  8. The airport master plan is a big picture plan – there’s no funding or timeline for implementing the changes. Each specific change will undergo more detailed analysis and have opportunities for public input.

  9. The Carlsbad City Council could schedule an advisory vote on the airport plan (or anything else, for that matter). The results would not be binding since the city does not have jurisdiction over the airport. 

  10. The city has submitted an extensive comment letter on the draft EIR for the Master Plan and the County will have to respond to those comments as part of the final EIR. Meanwhile, the city is considering next steps regarding its approach to the County.


McClellan-Palomar Airport is operated by the County of San Diego and offers commercial flights, executive/private jet general aviation services. The county is in the process of updating the airport master plan, which provides a blueprint for development of the airport over the next 20 years. Watch the county's video about the master plan.

The City of Carlsbad recently submitted detailed comments about the proposed plan and its potential impacts on the community. As the city works with the county to ensure local needs are considered in the airport planning process, we've made the following general information available so residents can stay informed and get accurate information about the complex issues surrounding Palomar Airport. 

What is the city's role in the airport master plan?

Even though the airport is located in Carlsbad, the airport is under the jurisdiction of the County of San Diego and the FAA.  Although some believe the city must allow a public vote on the master plan or has the ability to enforce land use permits on airport property, the city’s legal team disagrees. The law firm of Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, specializing in airports, land use and other infrastructure projects, has reviewed the issues involved and provided an overview at two recent City Council meetings (see links below). The legal team also assisted in the preparation of the city’s official comments on the draft master plan and draft environmental impact report and will continue to advise the City Council on its options. 

Does the city have a position on the master plan?

Individual City Council members may have expressed positions on the master plan, but the City Council has not taken an official position.   

Why do some Carlsbad residents think a vote is required?

In 1980, the Carlsbad City Council passed an ordinance (city law) requiring a public vote before the City Council takes any legislative action necessary for the expansion of the airport. This law is contained in the city’s municipal code, CMC 21.53.015

What would trigger a vote?

To trigger a public vote, the master plan would need to do two things:

  • Result in an expansion of the airport.
  • Require the City Council to approve a zone change, general plan amendment or other legislative action necessary for the expansion. (The city has not identified any aspect of the master plan or its implementation that would require this kind of legislative action.) 

Some people believe the city would need to amend the existing conditional use permit, sometimes called a CUP, which was granted to the County for the airport.  The city’s legal team believes that a conditional use permit amendment is considered an administrative action, not a legislative action.

Could the City Council call for an advisory vote?

Yes. The City Council has the ability to call for an advisory vote on virtually anything. An advisory vote is not binding.  The City Council has asked city staff to research options related to a vote, including when a vote could occur, even if it were advisory and not binding, the cost, and the legal and financial implications. City staff will return to the City Council with this information at an upcoming meeting. 

Why aren't the actions in the proposed master plan considered an expansion?

The city’s outside counsel believes that expansion refers to enlargement of the airport’s physical boundaries, not an extension of the runway or other changes within the fenceline of the existing airport. This opinion is based on concerns regarding federal preemption, historical context, legislative history and other factors related to the legal definition of the term “expansion.” 

What was the 1980 Carlsbad citizens’ initiative on the airport about?

In 1980, Carlsbad voters gathered enough signatures on an initiative to quality for a public vote. The goal of the initiative was to prevent the City Council from approving a zone change, general plan amendment or any other legislative action necessary to authorize airport expansion without a public vote.  The City Council had two options when presented with the qualified initiative: put the issue to a public vote or adopt an ordinance to make the initiative into law without a public vote. The City Council chose the latter.  

What specifically does the ordinance say? 

Carlsbad Municipal Code section 21.53.015: Voter authorization required for airport expansion.

(a)    The city council shall not approve any zone change, general plan amendment or any other legislative enactment necessary to authorize expansion of any airport in the city nor shall the city commence any action or spend any funds preparatory to or in anticipation of such approvals without having been first authorized to do so by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the city voting at an election for such purposes.

(b)    This section was proposed by initiative petition and adopted by the vote of the city council without submission to the voters and it shall not be repealed or amended except by a vote of the people. (Ord. 9804 § 5, 1986; Ord. 9558 § 1, 1980)  

Why did the city issue two "conditional use permits" if it doesn't have jurisdiction over the airport? 

In 1980, the City of Carlsbad Planning Commission granted permission, called a “conditional use permit,” or CUP, for the county to make various improvements to the airport and placed conditions on those improvements. At the time, the county policy was that it would voluntarily comply with the conditional use permit terms. The county has taken the position that the proposed master plan and the anticipated improvements are consistent with the existing CUP. Even if a CUP amendment were deemed necessary, the permit may not be legally binding. Ultimately, this would need to be determined by the courts. 

How can the city protect its quality of life in light of the proposed airport improvements?

The county, like any other entity proposing a major project, must analyze the potential effects of a project and commit to a mitigation plan for all identified significant impacts. The city provided official comments on the airport’s plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report to reflect the community’s concerns, including traffic, noise and other effects of the plan. The city is now exploring what other options are available to ensure the community’s concerns are addressed. 

What is being proposed in the master plan?

In a nutshell, the draft master plan includes three main changes. One is adding safety features at each end of the runway to slow down planes and help safely stop a plane that overruns the runway.  The second is shifting the runway to the north to increase the separation distance between the runway and the taxiway. The third is to extend the runway to the east end of the property, near the corner of El Camino Real and Palomar Airport Road.  

When would the improvements happen?

The county currently doesn’t have funding allocated to make the improvements in the plan, and there’s no timeline for completing the improvements at this time.  The draft master plan divides the proposed projects into three phases: near term (0-7 years), intermediate term (8-12 years) and long-term (13-20 years.)  

What’s next

The deadline for submitting comments on the master plan and Draft Environmental Impact Report was March 19, 2018. The County of San Diego is required to respond to all the comments submitted. Then, the county will issue a environmental impact report and master plan for approval by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. No dates have been established for these next steps at this time. 

Source documents

More information

For more information about the city's role in the airport master plan, please contact Jason Haber at 760-434-2958 or jason.haber@carlsbadca.gov.