With A Head Wind, The Airfield “Will Take Off”

By Jesús Aguado

“The airfield project is ongoing and will be a reality,” declared governor Miguel Márquez in support of the mayor of San Miguel de Allende, Ricardo Villarreal. On the other hand, activists have asked the authorities to stop the airfield project because it will not only decrease property value, but it will also impact the four universities in the area, the state prison, two hospitals, and some natural protected areas. Because the impact will be irreversible, the activists have asked to have a citizens’ consultation over the matter.

César Arias, president of Charco del Ingenio and spokesperson for 14 nonprofit organizations that have signed a petition addressed to the General Direction of Civil Aeronautics so that Villarreal’s project would not be authorized, told Atención that the local authorities responded with the old PRI party style, making use of disparaging comments and personal damage, just because he is making use of his right to question this project.

The Press Release

A press conference was held in Guanajuato on Tuesday, August 22, by César Arias de la Canal, as the spokesperson for the 14 organizations (El Charco del Ingenio, Observatorio Ciudadano and Amigos del Museo de San Miguel, A.C.; among others.) They are opposing the project for the opening and operation of an “airport” in San Julián “because of safety reasons and the environmental and auditory impact.”

The press release states that the project is situated in an urban area; close to four universities, two of which were the maximum permitted height; two hospitals; the state prison; the acoustic shell; and high-tension towers from the Federal Commission of Electricity. For all of these reasons, it would be almost impossible for airplanes to take off and land.

According to the press release, the noise produced by a jet flying low is 90 decibels while the maximum permitted in an urban area is 65. The document stated, “The environmental and auditory impact would be harmful to our World Heritage City, a tourist and residential destination. Tourism is the main source of economic development in San Miguel. The decrease in values of the properties that are close to the area has to be considered because it is a well-known phenomenon that suburban and urban areas lose their value because of the impact of an airport. These properties turn into undesirable places to live. For that reason authorities normally make an effort to keep those projects out of urban areas. This is what León and Querétaro did, and México City is in the process of doing it. Why would San Miguel de Allende want an airfield in the urban area.”

The document also stated that San Miguel does not need an airfield because it is easy to fly to BJX, MEX, QRO, or Celaya. A letter was sent to the Secretaría de Comunicaciones y Transportes (SCT) asking them to reject the project.

The Authority Responded

State governor Miguel Márquez expressed his support of the airfield. Mayor Ricardo Villarreal, in an interview with Atención San Miguel, commented that the people who are now against the project supported it in the past because some of them (César Arias and Mario Hernández) participated in the creation of the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial y Ecológico (Plan of Territorial and Ecological Zoning) in 2011, knowing that there has always been an airfield at San Julián. He also mentioned that Rusty Henson, a foreigner, is another person who was in favor of the airfield when he was operating it but, now that the government has suspended the contract that he had, he is against it and says that the project is not viable.

According to Villarreal, the construction of this project is legal and fulfills the regulations, and for that reason the SCT has to respect the law and authorize it. “The project appears in all the municipal plans, and those who are now against it are those who operated in the area in the past and made bad use of public resources like Rusty Henson. He now plays the victim and is against it when previously he was the main promoter of it.” Villarreal remarked that the state government gave Henson public resources to improve the landing strip and he and his organization created “a disaster.” Henson had previously told Atención that it was not his organization that had received the money, but rather it was the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (Council of Local Entrepreneurs) then headed by Juan José Álvarez Brunnel, now a local legislator, who had received the money, and who defended himself stating that what he did was correct.

Mayor Villarreal also commented that Henson is against the project because he wants his contract back and he wants the local and state government to invest in improvements and “that is an economic interest.” He said that there will be a public call for bids and the contract will be granted to the company with the most money to invest. “The government will not spend a single peso on that project. I spend the money of the people on work that will benefit them,” he said, assuring us that Henson wants the airfield for his own benefit and “he wants Sanmiguelenses to pay for it. I will not authorize that.”

Citizens’ Consultation

In the press conference in Guanajuato, the activists requested that the project go to a citizen’s consultation, but Villarreal remarked that he will not do that because a public consultation was held in the past (2011) when Mario Hernández and César Arias were members on the board for the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial y Ecológico (POET). The project was considered at that time “and they authorized it.” We found those board names on a City Council Agreement in January 2011, when Luz María Núñez Flores was mayor.

“The consultations were made when the POET was approved, and in it the landing strip was considered,” said Villareal. “There is no law forcing me to send the project to a citizens’ consultation. The space has been approved for a landing strip. If I were making changes, I would have to send it to a public consultation, but nothing has changed since then.”

Those activists also complained about damage to the heritage site because the administration exchanged some land in order to obtain legal possession of the landing strip—some of the plots belonged to private owners. Villarreal remarked that the city did not lose but gained thousands of square meters and also mentioned that people like Orlando Mariano Navvaro who owned land in the landing strip donated it to the local government, “because they are people who want to encourage economic development in San Miguel. As a candidate for mayor I said that I would open the airfield, and now as mayor I say it again. When I finish my three-year-period, I will be happy to hand over the landing strip to the Sanmiguelenses,” he added.

Repressive Government

Entrepreneur and activist César Arias granted an interview with this newspaper, assuring us that he has no political, economic, or personal interests in the airfield but that he is only interested in the wellbeing of San Miguel de Allende. “I have no politic interests; I am not running for president of Mexico. El Charco del Ingenio is not my private ranch but a community project. I am annoyed because when we criticize the authorities, the government responds with personal attacks, and that is not good. If we consider that the politicians’ policies are wrong, we have the right and the duty to questioning them.”

Atención asked Arias if he had participated in the counsel for integrating the POET. He responded that he attended those meetings that lasted two years and during those years  “many topics were discussed. There was an airfield that was discussed, but we thought that it was the unpaved landing strip that had been there since 1970. Never did we imagine that it would be for commercial jets. Airfield or airport is a euphemism. Our arguments have been given, and we do not want an airport for San Miguel.”

Arias also remarked that when Rusty Henson was operating the airfield, some planes were flying low and very close to El Charco del Ingenio. The people at El Charco complained and made it clear that such a project was not needed in town.

Arias emphasized that other administrations have harassed him for expressing his ideas or being against public policies but “two days after the press conference, the local administration closed Posada Corazón (his property on calle Aldama,) and that is such a disgrace. It is a retaliation, to intimidate me with no respect for the law.” Arias said that, according to articles 470 and 471 from the Territorial Code, before closing a business for not complying with the Civil Protection’s program, the authorities should conduct an inspection, and then give the owners 10 working days to resolve the problem and, if necessary, grant them an extra 30 days. But the employees from the Civil Protection and World Heritage Departments went to the businesses and closed them. César Arias made it clear that it was a personal financial loss for those 11 families that depend on the business from the Posada Corazón. He also said that the closing caused inconveniences to the guests who had to leave the hotel.

“I filed a complaint with the state ombudsman and it was immediately accepted. I complained that it was an act of repression against freedom of expression and the right to meet. It was also an attack against a decent and legal company. There are other entrepreneurs, like the people from El Deseo and Capilla de Piedra, that do whatever they feel like.” Arias made it clear that the closing of Casa Corazón will not silence him. “We live with an authoritarian regimen that uses methods that the old PRI party used. The politicians impose their concepts using dirty and illegal methods, but they will not defeat us,” he declared.

Contract and Operation of the Airfield

Atención contacted Rusty Henson to get a statement, but after several emails he decided not to respond anything on the airport or comments about him.

In June of 2015 Atención published its first article about the airport, operated in that time by Amigos de la Aviación, where Rusty Henson was a member. He then provided us with documents about the airport handling.

After several efforts, Amigos de la Aviación, a nonprofit organization “aimed at promoting aviation in general, along with tourism, and economic opportunities related to aviation in San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding area,” got a permit from the Dirección General de Aeronáutica Civil (DGAC) to operate the airfield. It was good from November 24, 2011 to November 24, 2016. Amigos de la Aviación also received a bailment contract from the local administration, then headed by Mayor Rodolfo Jurado Maycotte, to administer that municipal property. It was signed on September 3, 2009, and expired on September 3, 2019.

With the goal of securing state, federal, and possibly municipal funds—according to documents Atención has acquired—Amigos de la Aviación prepared a presentation with an economic estimate requesting funds. The presentation stated that in order to come to this region, travelers have to decide between spending a whole week at a Mexican beach destination or commit the entire journey to visiting the city. This is because the flights to and from the BJX, MEX, or QRO airports required an entire day of traveling and considerable expense. The document also highlights that “there are no air taxis or airlines in the region offering packages or charter flights to well-known destinations like Oaxaca, Zacatecas, or Veracruz. There are no flights that can provide specialized transportation for weddings, golfers, and other travelers with common interests.”

Amigos de la Aviación expressed what would later be said by Mayor Mauricio Trejo, State Secretariat of Tourism Fernando Olivera Rocha, and governor Márquez that air taxis could fly in and out of the San Miguel de Allende airfield to and from the main Mexican destinations, including Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo, Manzanillo, and others. The organization’s justification stated that turbo-prop planes with a capacity for 12 and 14 people like the Cessna Caravan 208B could be efficiently used for this service. They also presented a map with the possible routes and links to pilots’ organizations (more than 800,000) that travel from the United States to destinations in Mexico and Central America. These people could be attracted to San Miguel.

According to some members of Amigos de la Aviación, the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial de San Miguel de Allende (CCESMA—Business Coordinating Council), then headed by Javier Álvarez Brunell, became involved in the Amigos project to attract tourists with higher buying power and also to help the organization get financial resources for the improvements to the airfield. The CCESMA was in charge of the paving of the runways, but according to Amigos, they did not follow regulations and the work was not done correctly, leaving ripples in the landing strips. The CCESMA alleged that they did not need advice or help from the Amigos organization. In 2013 the airfield was closed by the DGAC because of the unsatisfactory work, (see Atención San Miguel, 3 de julio de 2015.)

CCESMA

Juan José Álvarez Brunel is the founder of CCESMA and was also the first president. The CCESMA was sworn in by then-governor Juan Manuel Oliva on December 2, 2011. CCESMA is comprised of associations, and Amigos de la Aviación was a member from the beginning. Álvarez commented that one of the council’s projects was to improve the airfield in order to provide more income for the city. His information agrees with what Ricardo Garrido, the present president of CCESMA, said. Álvarez acknowledged that when CCESMA was formed, Amigos had already applied for and received 1.5 million pesos from the state government for the airfield. The administration of the financial resources was supervised by the OFS (State Control Organism) because of administrative misconduct of Amigos.

CCESMA gave then Governor Oliva the project of improving the SMA strip. However due to the administrative misconduct that the OFS detected, Governor Oliva stated that if the government gave money for improving the airfield, it would be on the condition that the money had to be administered by CCESMA. “That was not our decision. It was the governor’s decision,” said Álvarez, (see Atención San Miguel, 31 de julio de 2015.)

On that occasion the governor committed himself to investing 7 million pesos in two phases for the airfield. The first 3.5 million pesos were utilized, “always following the plans from Amigos de la Aviación,” assured Álvarez. He also remarked that at the end of each phase of the work, the State Secretariat of Public Works and Tourism received all the documentation to show how the money had been used. “CCESMA did not have a single objection.”

The former president of the council also stated that the only airplane that has landed on that strip is one owned by Governor Miguel Márquez Márquez, who attended a CCESMA meeting in San Miguel. They wanted him to land there because they were interested in showing him what had been done with the money. When he saw the work, he said, “What you have done with this airfield is very impressive, but the state government did what it had to do. Now it is the private sector’s turn to invest in it.” Álvarez said that when the governor said that, there was still a possibility of getting the 3.5 million pesos that Oliva mentioned in 2011, but Amigos de la Aviación had not submitted new proposals requesting that money. “If the strip has deficiencies, I cannot see them because I am not an expert. But the employees from the Secretariat of Public Works received all the documents and they said that the work was well done. We are relieved of any liability,” Álvarez commented.

On the other hand, the current president of CCESMA, Ricardo Garrido, showed Atención a document issued on June 6, 2013, by the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation. It states that the runways have small imperfections, but it clarifies that the strip meets legal standards and that it is ready for receiving airplanes. Garrido also commented that if the strip is closed, it is Henson’s fault, since he has been trying to block its opening with unproven claims. Garrido made it clear that he has all the documents to prove that Henson is lying and will show them to the relevant authorities, “because they will file a criminal complaint against him,” he said. “All he has been saying are lies,” charged Garrido, who also emphasized that Henson has neither the legal authority nor the legal right to give opinions on the airfield because it is not his property. Garrido said that CCESMA will give all its support to the local administration so that the airfield will open.

Javier Álvarez, legal representative of Amigos

Álvarez explained that Russell Henson is no longer a member of Amigos de la Aviación. He was excluded so that the association could function better. His exclusion was approved by four members (out of five). Henson’s legal representative, Richard King Wellner, abstained  at that meeting. Álvarez said that Henson was not in the city at the time and the organization accepted Wellner’s document proving he was legally representing Henson at the meeting. That incident occurred on April 5, 2013.

 

Several closings

On the closing of several businesses Ángel Gastelum, the director of the Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development Department, told Atención that it was not arbitrary and it was because Casa Corazón did not comply with the Civil Protection’s program.

About the notices and extra time to fulfill the requirements, Gastelum noted that these are for new businesses that do not have Land Use permits, and Posada Corazón already had the permit, but did not fulfill its legal duties. “We have been monitoring many businesses in town, and it is a pity that we had to close the Posada Corazón. I invite everybody to check at our office to see if their businesses comply with the law because the regulations and laws are very clear.”

Atención tried to contact the owners of Casa del Diezmo, another business that was closed to find out the reasons for the closing of their restaurant, but they were out of town. Gastelum commented that the liquor permit at that restaurant was not legal because it was granted by the former director of the Urban Development Department. It was not authorized by the City Council.

Another business was closed on Calle Aldama because they were renting rooms without a  permit. Gastelum said that La Mesa Grande was also closed because they were operating in violation of the Civil Protection Plan.

 

 

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