The California Coastal Commission will conduct a hearing tonight in order to determine whether or not the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport will be allowed to add 1,000-foot-long safety areas to either end of the runway, designed to increase the safety of aircraft during takeoff and landing.

The $16 million plan would shift the position of the current runway 800 feet to the west in order to create the 1,000-foot safety areas which would consist of smooth, impacted dirt and give planes an area to roll out on if the runway is missed or overshot. Currently, the safety areas are between 200 and 300 feet long on either end of the runway.

The safety strips are one of the latest standards imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, environmental groups have raised several concerns opposing extension of the runway because it would bulldoze 13.3 acres of the Goleta Slough and divert the Tecolotito and Los Carneros creeks.

“The city did not conduct an analysis of the least environmentally damaging plan,” Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava said.

The Goleta City Council is pressing for the use of an alternative to the safety extensions known as the Engineered Material Arresting System, which would place crumbled concrete at the end of the runway so aircraft could still roll to a safe stop. EMAS is currently used at Burbank Airport.

Santa Barbara Airport spokesperson Taryn Ramsdell said if EMAS is used, the creeks at the end of the runway would still threaten the safety of planes that undershot the runway.

“EMAS is not a substitute for a standard safety area,” she said.

Ramsdell said the airport has considered 16 alternatives in the past 10 years, some of which have entailed rerouting Fairview Avenue or tunneling under it.

Goleta Mayor Margaret Connell opposes the plan because of concerns for nearby Ellwood residences. Connell said if the runway is moved 800 feet to the west, the flight path of airplanes would lie directly over residential neighborhoods. She also said the extension of the runway would allow larger planes to use the airport, which would greatly increase the noise factor for Goleta residents.

However, Ramsdell said the plan does not call for an increase in runway length, merely a shift in position.

“The runway length will not change and will not accommodate larger planes,” Ramsdell said. “The flight path will only be slightly lower, not significantly louder and should not be a safety issue.”

The Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, an environmental protection organization, has proposed a plan to return tidal circulation to the Goleta Slough – which has been diverted for years because of both natural and unnatural barriers – to the city council in order to protect the habitat’s species.

“Tidal function must be restored to the Goleta Slough if it is going to survive as a wetland ecosystem,” Channelkeeper Executive Director Drew Bohan said.

The city and the FAA have not yet committed to tidal restoration because they are concerned that the return of tidal waters could bring more large birds into the area, which would increase the danger of bird strikes to airplanes. However, both the city and the FAA are waiting to make a decision until conclusive results from an environmental impact report are submitted.