The sight of hot-air balloons floating above the freeways every evening has long made the commute a little more pleasant for people driving to their homes in North County. Unfortunately, major balloon companies in the area are slowly being driven out of business , by those very same homes in North County.
The increasing pace of housing and new construction throughout San Diego County is taking the air out of local ballooning companies. More construction means less land available, meaning it’s becoming more difficult to find places to land. Conni and Tiemo von Zweck, president and vice president of Del Mar-based Sky Surfer Balloon Co., have been ballooning in the area for almost a quarter-century. The couple came to Del Mar in 1976, ballooning as a hobby. The ocean breezes and good weather made the area perfect for ballooning, Tiemo said. In 1979, they turned it into a full-time business. At the time, there were almost no homes east of Interstate 5, Conni recalled. Even then, the von Zwecks knew that the area they were in was a future urbanization area for San Diego. Now, the future has caught up with them, Tiemo said.
With new developments and subdivisions constantly being built, that means fewer spots to land in with every passing year. Whereas the company used to be able to fly to the north, south and east, development to the north of them has made it more difficult to find landing sites if the wind is blowing in a northerly direction, Conni said. “Wind directions now are playing a major role in whether we can even consider a flight for any particular afternoon,” she said. “Because of the development that’s taken over, we actually can’t fly on a day that the winds don’t agree with us there.” Arriving at a designated landing site is a precision task. A balloonist must stay out of controlled airspace, while also taking into account the various wind directions sometimes available at different altitudes, Tiemo said. The task becomes increasingly difficult if there are fewer landing sites available, he said. “It’s like going for years and years to the same golf course, and every time you come out, they have about five more sand traps in front of the greens. That’s how spotty the area becomes,” Tiemo said.
Flight Days Limited
Flight Days Limited
Housing development along the future Highway 56 may soon make it impossible to fly to the south as well. With the ocean to the west, there will eventually come a day when they’ll be able to fly only on days when the wind is blowing to the east, she said. Unless landowners make provisions for balloonists, that means over the years, there will be fewer balloons over North County. The problem is affecting balloonists throughout the county, she said. David Bradley has also seen it affect his business. As the owner of Carlsbad-based California Dreamin’ Balloon Adventures, he’s been ballooning in the San Diego area since 1976. Now he predicts he may have only three years left in the area. It all depends on the economy. If job growth slows down, fewer homes will be built. But more job growth means more homes, and therefore, less open space. “It will slowly squeeze our flight operations to the point that you’ll see very few balloon nights in Del Mar,” he said. Mark Riedy is one of the people who can see the trend isn’t very good for hot-air ballooning in the county. He speaks both as the director of the Real Estate Institute at the University of San Diego, and as a fan of hot-air ballooning himself. “I remember going up about two years ago (with a balloonist) and he bemoaned the fact that 20 years ago, there used to be so many places to take off from, as well as so many places to land. In 20 more years, maybe 10 more years, they’ll all be out of business because there won’t be any place to do either one,” he said. More Growth Projected All the trends are pointing toward more houses and development in the future. According to projections from the San Diego Association of Governments, the area will see 1 million new residents by 2020, Riedy said.
That works out to 50,000 new residents a year, except for the past few years, the area has actually grown by 70,000 new residents a year, he said. Job growth has been strong in the area, attracting new residents. But housing development hasn’t kept the pace, which is why the cost of a new home has gone up so much, Riedy said. The pace of new home construction can only be expected to speed up if the economy and job growth continue to remain strong. But since housing construction is so far behind job growth, the pace of new housing construction will continue to grow even if San Diego’s economy slows down slightly. That spells trouble to balloonists, Riedy notes.
“It’s sort of a romantic thing,” he said. “It’s part of the quality of life that we enjoy here. And it will be sad to see them pass if they have to, because of a lack of a landing area , one of the hidden losses that will occur as a result of San Diego’s growth,” he said. Bradley agreed. “We’ve become a hallmark. When people think about Del Mar, they think about the track, the balloons, the surfers and the beach atmosphere,” he said. “If that goes away, it’s kind of sad. Kind of, ‘I remember when.'”