Up in the air

After 75 years of smooth sailing, the Torrey Pines Gliderport has had a rough year - and more turbulence could lie ahead.

Already working its way through litigation brought by a coastal conservationist group regarding structures built on the site, the Gliderport is facing new challenges, including a new student housing development built by UCSD that Gliderport operators say could interfere with flight plans, and the very real possibility that the lease for the city-owned property could not be renewed when it expires next year.

David Jebb, the lease holder and operator of Torrey Pines Gliderport, said he is working his way through the issues brought up in a lawsuit filed by the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network against the city, which alleged that Jebb had developed the site with an 800-square-foot trailer, a kitchen, concession stand, bathroom and an observatory deck constructed atop two shipping containers without coastal development permits.

Jebb said that he filed for permits for the structures before he constructed them, but that the city never approved nor denied them.

“In 1986, when the buildings were put in, we filed all the paperwork,” he said. “The city planners told me the paperwork was all still there but had never received final approval.”

Under the city’s settlement agreement with the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network, Jebb would be required to file the applications again. Jebb said that the inquiry into the development at the site also revealed that the Gliderport never received a conditional use permit for the coastal location.

“So technically, all the hanggliding and paragliding we’ve been doing over the years is illegal,” he said.

Jebb said he has spent more than $100,000 on architectural and geological reviews of the property and developments in an attempt to secure the permits. Jebb said he had been assured by Will Griffith, the previous head of the city’s Real Estate Asset Management Group, that his lease would be renewed after he secured the permits. But Griffith was replaced months ago. Jebb’s lease on the Gliderport site expires in August 2008.

“They told me if I finish this up, they’ll consider extending the lease,” Jebb said. “But I realize now there’s a whole new management in there, and they could say anything, though they’ve assured me they’d like me to stay on.”

Jebb said most of the disputed developments at the site were in place prior to his taking over the lease.

“Other than one 600-square-foot addition, everything was done prior to me taking over the lease hold,” he said. “I assumed that since the business had been operating for a decade or two that all of this stuff was all under code to the city. These violations have nothing to do with me, I inherited them, essentially.”

Representatives of the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network did not return calls seeking comment.

Now the Gliderport is also having trouble with development from nearby UCSD. Jebb said a new 14-story student housing complex will cut off a main approach for sailplanes, which typically fly in a six- to eight-week season in spring. The university said the Gliderport will not be affected and that the Coastal Commission had signed off on the complex.

Jebb noted that hanggliders and paragliders do not use the disputed approach path, but worried that losing the sailplane approach could affect the Gliderport’s designation with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The uncertainty around the Gliderport’s lease threatens one of only two flight parks designated as historic by the federal government, the other being in Kitty Hawk, N. C., where the Wright brothers took their famous first flight. The Torrey Pines Gliderport is world famous in the flight community for the consistency of its outstanding conditions. Prevailing onshore winds pushed upward by the 400-foot sandstone cliffs that rise almost vertically from the beach below the Gliderport combine with mild San Diego weather to create ideal flying conditions almost year-round.

The updrafts from the cliffs were first used by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who piloted a sailplane over Torrey Pines State Beach all the way to a landing on the sand in Del Mar.