The Moffett Field Experience

by Lenny Siegel
February, 1998

The successful campaign to block commercial air cargo operations at Moffett Field, in California's Silicon Valley, is a textbook example of community organizing. Faced with a "done deal" backed by local government, major corporations, and powerful federal agencies, the residents of Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and neighboring communities organized themselves not only to prevent the particular proposal from moving forward, but to set the stage for continuing direct public involvement in planning the future of the former Naval Air Station.

This essay is by no means a complete discussion of the Moffett debate. And it doesn't pretend to offer a prescription for community organizing elsewhere. Rather, it is simply a collection of lessons that may be drawn from our experience. Our community, in the heart of the world's high-tech brain center, is particularly empowered and well educated, and some might argue that the air cargo proposal was a loser from the start. Still, many of our strategies and tactics appear to be applicable elsewhere.

In 1990, when the Navy first proposed to close Moffett Naval Air Station, several of us local activists proposed a thorough reuse planning process. We turned good crowds out to some public meetings, but we were trumped by an alliance of aerospace industry, local governments, and federal agencies that engineered the transfer of the runways and associated facilities to the adjacent NASA Ames Research Center. Though disappointed with the outcome, we found no opportunities to raise the reuse issue in a serious way. Instead, we focused on overseeing the toxic cleanup at Moffett -- a Superfund site -- not only to protect our drinking water and the San Francisco Bay, but to ensure that Navy hazardous waste would not prevent new uses if and when the federal government decided to give up the property. Meanwhile, the federal use of the airfield declined, pleasing the neighbors in its noisy flight path.

In late 1995, we learned about a proposal by NASA and several air cargo companies to open up the airfield, currently only available for federal use, to air package express flights. While the proposed increase in air traffic in itself concerned local residents, the timing of flights was of particular concern. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realized that Fedex, UPS, and DHL must land and take-off in the early hours of the morning to get packages to destinations at their advertised times.

Concern grew slowly, largely because the proposal received virtually no press coverage at first. The San Jose Mercury News -- the otherwise well regarded daily newspaper that serves our area -- chose not to cover the proposal when it first surfaced. Then I placed an opinion piece in one of our local weekly newspapers, and several people wrote letters in response. (Throughout our campaign we maintained contact with both the news and opinion page staffs of the daily and weekly papers that serve our community.) A couple of us convened a meeting, inviting people who had worked on Moffett issues before, representatives of neighborhood associations, and anyone who had written a letter to the editor expressing opposition to the air cargo proposal.

We called ourselves the Alliance for a New Moffett Field, we wrote up bylaws, and we elected officers, but we got off to a slow start. We researched the issue, circulated petitions, and held regular meetings. We showed up at city council meetings on the subject, always setting up tables with fliers and sign-up sheets. Our initial organizational goal was abstract: to promote an open planning process for Moffett Field. We didn't want to cast ourselves as simply NIMBYs (not in my back yard advocates), and in fact several us cared more about alternate future uses than we cared about air cargo.

Friends and neighbors responded, that's fine, but what's your group's position on air cargo? Observing which way the wind was blowing, we took a clear stand. From that point, the Alliance took off. A couple of our members circulated NIMBY-type fliers in their neighborhood, asking residents if they wanted low-lying air cargo jets overhead, and we found a reservoir of support.

Each time we collected a signature or met someone at a meeting, we diligently added the name to our mailing list. Actually, in this day and age in Silicon Valley, it's a "data base" with nearly 500 households. And we also created a listserver, an E-mail list through which any member can send, at no cost, a message to the entire list. We now have about 200 people on the electronic list. Depending upon our need, we use the data base to target mail, E-mail, or phone calls to our supporters. By building and using the data base, placing announcements in existing community media, and relying upon volunteers, we were able to sustain a two-year organizing effort with a minimum of funds.

Despite the depth of support for our organization, we have never attracted large numbers of people to our own meetings. (The typical Silicon Valley professional works long hours.) But we've never considered that a problem. Instead, we've urged people to show up at City Council meetings -- primarily in the two adjacent cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Moffett is technically beyond their boundaries, but it is their legal "spheres of influence." When necessary, we've relied upon good old fashioned phone trees to spread the word.

Though at each city council we encouraged residents from within that city to speak, our organization always crossed municipal boundary lines. Citizens of Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and neighboring cities supported each others efforts and shared information. Whenever two cities had Moffett on the agenda the same night, we showed up at both meetings, staying in touch via telephone.

As required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), NASA drafted an environmental assessment for the air cargo proposal. In one sense, NEPA is a toothless law, in that it doesn't prevent federal agencies from degrading the environment. However, communities often use NEPA to delay projects by filing lawsuits challenging the adequacy of the documents.

At Moffett, we viewed NEPA primarily as the opportunity for educational theater. It was relatively easy to bring our neighbors to public meetings where NASA, the Air Force, and the air cargo companies would attempt to sell their proposal to the public. And it gave us -- and a large number of previously unknown people who agreed with us -- a chance to be heard. Folks that didn't come to City Council and NEPA meetings could watch them on cable TV or read about them in the newspapers.

Ironically, NEPA worked at Moffett largely the way it was designed. We picked apart the environmental assessment, page by page. Though some of our city officials remained supportive of the air cargo proposals, the city staffs came up with excellent critiques of the environmental assessment. The advantage of living in an educated, empowered community was obvious when numerous people showed up out of the neighborhoods, having read the entire lengthy environmental assessment, and submitted pages of their own expert comments. In fact, it appears that NASA dropped its NEPA work prematurely when it considered the huge task of just answering the many thoughtful comments it received.

At one of these meetings, we won a critical admission from NASA, a legal fact that we had found in our research. NASA didn't have the statutory authorization to allow in the air cargo companies because the airfield was no longer owned by the Department of Defense. That meant that Congress would have to pass special legislation. We reasoned that this was a parochial issue, so even with its high level of partisanship Congress would not pass such a law unless our own Congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, gave her blessing.

We attended Eshoo's town hall meetings and asked questions, and later, when it was clear we had attracted widespread backing, a delegation of a dozen Alliance members met with her at her office. Every time one of us contacted Eshoo or our two U.S. Senators, they would respond, "we listen to the cities." That is, if the city governments of Sunnyvale and Mountain View backed air cargo, they would too. By this time, it was June, 1996, with the national elections coming up in November. In Mountain View, four of seven city council seats were on the ballot.

We decided to seek a November advisory vote in both cities. Both communities had taken two similar polls in the past, and we were confident of victory. Getting it on the ballot through the initiative process, however, would have been extremely difficult, because once we went through the required administrative steps, there wouldn't be much time to gather the required number of signatures.

Instead, we mounted campaigns to convince the two city councils that they should put the question to the voters. We wrote columns and letters for the local newspapers. We mobilized our supporters for council meetings. And we circulated, door-to-door and elsewhere, sheets of 8 1/2 by 11 card stock containing four pre-addressed postcards. All the cards gave residents the room to state their own views, but the two to the city councils included a checkbox for supporting the proposed advisory vote. The card addressed to Congresswoman Eshoo asked her to oppose any special legislation enabling air cargo. And the fourth card, addressed to the Alliance, asked for full contact information and money -- although that would require respondents to put the card in an envelope.

Though we did not have the time or money to distribute the cards to more than a fraction of the households in our communities, the response was immediate and powerful. When each Mountain View City Council member received its information packet on the agenda item, it included copies of hundreds of the cards mailed in by area residents.

Time was critical, because delay would have eliminated the window of opportunity for placing the issue on the November ballot. Supporters on both city councils put it on their agendas -- for July 30, 1996 -- and it looked for a while like we had the votes on both city councils to place it on the ballot.

The NASA managers who were running their campaign to sell the neighbors on air cargo saw the handwriting on the wall. They moved to pre-empt the vote, urging the cities instead to form a citizens advisory committee to look at a variety of federal uses for Moffett. They offered to delay moving ahead with air cargo until the citizens committee reported back in 1997. We supported the formation of the committee. In fact, we had been calling for one for several weeks, but we pressed ahead with our demand for the chance to vote.

We welcomed the formation of the committee, but we insisted that the advisory votes happen. The Mountain View council still voted, by one vote, to put the measure on the ballot. We lost by one vote in Sunnyvale. Our members and supporters, particularly in Sunnyvale, were justifiably angry at the council members who denied them the opportunity to vote. Some proposed a recall campaign, to throw them out of office. But the result was actually a tactical windfall for us. We felt we could block air cargo with a strong "No" vote in Mountain View. And we wouldn't have to mobilize a campaign in Sunnyvale, a town with many more registered voters.

One of the risks inherent in asking elected officials to craft a ballot measure is that they get to write it. We proposed language based on previous advisory votes, and we successfully insisted that, for clarity, that our position -- opposition to air cargo -- be the "No" vote. The Mountain View Council, however, added a wrinkle to the language. Voters would be asked not only about air cargo, but other forms of civilian aviation, including general aviation -- that is, small planes. That actually divided the Alliance, since a few members of our group were pilots who wanted Moffett Field turned into a general aviation airport, but opposed air cargo. We were forced, before we were ready, to take a stand on that issue as well. Though a few members dropped out, most of us opposed all civilian aviation, and the group comfortably backed into that position. In retrospect, it was both helpful to our organizing and inevitable.

As we expected no one dared to campaign for air cargo. Supporters of NASA's plan declared the election premature. They said it would prove nothing, but we campaigned nevertheless. We formed a campaign committee and sent out a letter soliciting funds and volunteers. We prepared the official ballot argument against the measure, and we delivered literature door-to-door, posted signs, and distributed bumper stickers and buttons. One of our members, a Silicon Valley graphic artist, devised an impressive graphic theme to tie together our materials. We used the election to get our message out, but it was a low-key, low-budget operation. It's hard to generate momentum when there is no visible opponent.

As we campaigned, we started to pay attention to the Mountain View city council campaign. There were 12 candidates seeking 4 open seats. We circulated questionnaires and started talking to the candidates. By that time, everyone gave lip service opposition to air cargo -- but some clearly had reservations about our position. We ended up deciding to endorse the 6 candidates who not only seemed firmly against air cargo, but who also supported our call for an open planning process to look at the future of Moffett Field.

Election night we did impressively well. The no vote on the air cargo and civilian aviation measure was more than two to one, slightly better than the last time a similar proposition went before the voters. Two of our candidates won by large margins. One candidate that we didn't support won. And the fourth victor, from our list, surprised many observers by edging past a well-funded opponent. Our support seemed to have made the difference.

By that time, it was clear that the air cargo proposal was stalled. The community, at last, was on the record against it. And Congresswoman Eshoo had made it clear that she wouldn't allow special legislation to move forward under those circumstance.

The next round was the formation of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC). At NASA's urging, the cities defined the scope narrowly, asking the committee only to come up with ideas for Moffett compatible with its continued operation as a federal airfield. The process was cumbersome. And despite the two thirds support for our views in both cities -- a city-commissioned poll confirmed that in Sunnyvale -- we appeared outnumbered on the CAC by pilots and air cargo proponents.

However, the committee -- unlike previous intercity efforts to look at Moffett's future -- held open meetings, with opportunities for public testimony. Gradually it felt the weight of public opinion. NASA said it didn't really need air cargo. Instead, it came up with less controversial proposals, most of which do not involve overflights of our communities. By the time the Committee issued its final report in June, 1997, most of its recommendations were compatible with the Alliance's point of view, save one.

The majority of Committee members still considered Air Cargo "conditionally acceptable." The conditions that many urged, however, could not be legally imposed. So when the report went to the Mountain View city council's Moffett committee, it became clear that our elected representatives would go a step further and declare air cargo unacceptable.

Meanwhile, the Alliance decided to organize an educational forum on Moffett's little known wetlands, modeled on similar forums that had been held to look at other closing Bay Area Navy bases. The purpose of the forum was to alert the public that Moffett Field contains 200 acres of wetlands, another 200 acres of so of adjacent uplands open space, endangered species, and sensitive habitat. The day-long forum only attracted about 60 participants, but the Alliance activists, conservationists, and public officials -- including speakers from NASA and the Navy -- who attended learned a great deal from each other.

Most important, we established in public consciousness the notion that the most unique thing about Moffett, other than its huge blimp hangars, was not that it has runways, but that a good portion of the facility is historically part of the San Francisco Bay. That will be significant should NASA ever decide to declare the runways surplus property, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already designated -- as we learned at the symposium -- 400 acres at Moffett for addition to the adjacent Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge.

About the same time, as the Sunnyvale city council's vote on the advisory committee's recommendations approached, some of our members and friends in Sunnyvale formed a grassroots organization, Citizens for a Greater Sunnyvale, to muster opposition to air cargo (among other concerns) . Other Alliance members, including experienced local activists from nearby Los Altos, one-by-one won resolutions of support for our position from other cities in the extended Moffett noise path.

In November, 1997, it was Sunnyvale's turn to elect new council members. One of our staunchest opponents was forced to retire by term limits. One of our allies was running unopposed for re-election. There were two contested open seats. For one seat, there was a clear favorite, a neighborhood leader who had originally opposed the Alliance but who was gradually becoming more friendly. On a split vote, we endorsed him.

The third seat was a contest between a woman, who sought our support and spoke articulately on our behalf, and a man who had no clear position on the issues. We urged our supporters to work for the former. Citizens for a Greater Sunnyvale mobilized its members. She won by a convincing, but not overwhelming margin. Though she came out on top for a number of reasons, we had clearly contributed to her victory.

On November 25, 1997, approximately two years after we first heard hints that NASA was going to open up Moffett Field to Fedex and its competitors, both city councils were scheduled to vote on the Community Advisory Committee's recommendations. The Alliance was confident that we would win a majority in Mountain View. We thought we might have four votes in Sunnyvale. A small number of our core activists from Mountain View showed up to testify at the Mountain View meeting, and the Committee for a Greater Sunnyvale packed the house in Sunnyvale.

In adopting the Committee's recommendations, both cities took clear unanimous votes against air cargo at Moffett Field. One Mountain View councilwoman, an ally of the Alliance, actually voted no on the final resolution. She took an even stronger position, arguing that the cities should make a clear commitment to wetlands restoration. The San Jose Mercury News once again chose not to cover the result. It only mentioned it in an editorial a month later, where it once against called for air cargo at Moffett..

By informing ourselves, educating our neighbors, and organizing, a group of previously unaffiliated Silicon Valley residents took on two city halls, some of the nation's leading corporations (Lockheed, Apple, and the air package express companies), and at least two federal agencies. And we won!

We recognize, however, that as long as there are runways at Moffett Field, someone will propose to use them in ways that undermine our qualify of life. So we continue to organize. We are trying to influence all of the various agencies that have any type of planning authority over Moffett, on the assumption that NASA can not long afford to operate a federal airfield there.

We continue to ask Sunnyvale and Mountain View to undertake an open, long-range planning process for Moffett Field, even though it still remains under NASA's jurisdiction. We have submitted a detailed workplan to both cities, suggesting a strategy for following up the air cargo victory. As for the Alliance, we have decided to take on the difficult task of deciding among ourselves what future uses for Moffett we support, looking in the short run at uses compatible with the federal airfield and in the long run at uses to replace the runways that are compatible with our own vision for our community.