Watsonville's Secondary Strip Limits Growth

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Reserve Runway At Center Of Debate
Watsonville’s secondary strip limits growth
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel

WATSONVILLE – A report, due out today and anxiously awaited by area pilots, details six options for one of Watsonville Municipal Airport’s two runways – including shutting it down. In its current configuration, the 8-26 runway, also known as the crosswind runway, could cut development opportunities in the neighboring Buena Vista area by as much as half.

“The question is what can we do to modify (the crosswind runway) to still maintain safety, but also acknowledge the balance between it and the safety of existing residents and potentially future residents,” said John Doughty, city community development director.

The city plans to annex the Buena Vista area, a roughly 400-acre tract west of the airport, for development of as many as 2,400 homes and apartments, as well as retail and commercial businesses. Many Buena Vista residents oppose the annexation, and it will have to be approved by a regional board.

Doughty said the crosswind runway, the airport’s secondary strip which runs perpendicular to the main runway, is used only about 12 percent of the time. But its continued use, particularly for taking off, will put much of the prime developable land in the Buena Vista area off limits for housing.

Doughty declined to discuss the report in advance of its release, but said city officials didn’t commission the study with the intention of closing the runway, but rather to detail the options.

Nevertheless, pilots are worried about the possible loss of the runway.

Richard Lippi, president of the 150-member Watsonville Pilots Association, said pilots of small aircraft, like the single-engine plane he flies, can’t land on the main runway when the wind increases to more than 15 knots. And wind shifts are unpredictable, he said, recalling an incident two years ago when he took off from the main runway and couldn’t land there 15 minutes later because of a sudden change in the wind.

“There’s no way to predict it,” Lippi said. “That’s why two runways were put in.”

Airport Manager Don French said the crosswind runway is tapped as the primary runway for several days a month during the summer when coastal fog limits use of the main strip.

“We’d have to close down a greater number of times (without it),” French said.

The larger fear in the aviation community is that changes to the secondary runway could doom the airport in the long run by making it less desirable or practical for pilots.

Lippi pointed to a study released by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments last fall that showed the airport generates millions of dollars for the Santa Cruz County economy.

“Housing is nice, and California mandates providing housing,” he said. “But housing is not a money-maker.”

Doughty said that far from closing the airport, officials are moving forward with plans to expand and upgrade it. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to award the city a $2 million grant to improve the airport’s radio guidance system and build hangers and security fencing.

The city also is completing an environmental assessment of a plan to extend the main runway.

“We wouldn’t be looking at that investment … if we were truly interested in closing the airport,” Doughty said.

The city General Plan Update Steering Committee will consider the runway report at its meeting June 28. The meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. and 45 minutes will be allotted to the runway discussion, Doughty said. The City Council, which will make the final decision about the runway, will consider the report in August.