Watsonville City Council to Decide Airport's Fate

Monday, July 5, 2004
Watsonville City Council to Decide Airport’s Fate
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel

WATSONVILLE – Keep the Watsonville Municipal Airport as is and possibly give up building hundreds of homes.
Or make way for homes by irrevocably changing a city institution and economic engine.
That’s the choice the City Council faces. Add in the fact that stuck in the middle are nearby residents, many of whom vehemently oppose the development that changes to the airport would allow, and it’s an issue bound to stir passions.

Not surprisingly, more than 100 pilots and other airport supporters showed up for a meeting of a city planning committee last Monday to voice their opinions on a study that explored shutting down or shortening one of the facility’s two runways.

“This is the only airport in the county,” said Mike Pisenti. “When you reduce the airport, the chances of increasing it (again) are next to nil.”

Pisenti is the owner of Airmartronics, an aviation electronics equipment company based at the airport. He said the primary issue with altering or closing 8-26, the so-called crosswind runway, is safety. If pilots can’t land on it when strong cross winds blow across the main runway, serious accidents could occur.

But he also expressed concern about the impact on businesses, including his own. Others agreed. Several people said they moved to the area for the airport, and used it for business as well as pleasure.

“It’s shortsighted in any way to degrade the utility of this airport in light of the potential it has for attracting business to the area,” said Ray Fink, a Watsonville resident who described himself as “not a pilot but a frequent passenger.”

However, if the city maintains the runway as is, it “will have implications” for development in neighboring Buena Vista,” said John Doughty, city community development director.

Buena Vista is part of a compromise crafted by the city, environmentalists and farming interests to set the how and where of Watsonville’s future development. The city plans to annex the roughly 400-acre tract west of the airport, and though it will require approval from a regional commission, officials are developing a plan for the area. Preliminary proposals call for between 1,200 and 2,400 homes and apartments.

If the runway isn’t changed, either fewer houses will be built, or development will have to be concentrated in a smaller area, Doughty said.

Higher development densities are likely to further rile up Buena Vista residents who oppose the urbanization of their rural neighborhoods.

“I think these discussions are a bit premature,” Karin Kerber-Smith, a Buena Vista resident and annexation foe, told members of the city’s General Plan Update Committee on Monday. “The annexation is not a done deal.”

Chuck Carter is a former City Council member and vice-chairman of the plan committee. The committee is charged with making recommendations to the council, but on Monday members said they didn’t think they had enough information on the airport issue so they passed it along with no comment. The study had just been released, and the consultant wasn’t available to answer questions.

The airport decision is different from others the council faces, and that makes it tougher, he said.

“You can cut back on police officers, and in a year or two say you made a mistake and hire them back,” Carter said. “In the end, it’s correctable. This isn’t.”