Watsonville Municipal Airport's Secondary Runway

Friday, February 25, 2005
Compromise on Watsonville Airport runway would allow more housing
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel

WATSONVILLE – A compromise could settle a dispute over the future of Watsonville Municipal Airport’s secondary runway. Instead of shortening or eliminating runway 8-26 – two options that sparked controversy when they emerged last summer – city officials are talking about changing its designation.

Designating the so-called crosswind runway “low usage” would allow the city to reduce or abolish some safety zones that limit the number of homes that can be built west of the city-owned airport.

But pilots and others interested in protecting airport status quo are skeptical.

“We can move lines around. We can finagle. We can do all these things,” said Dan Chauvet, a member of the Watsonville Pilots Association. “But the nitty-gritty is what is the actual safety ramification. … I don’t see a compromise is in the best interest of safety for people flying or people on the ground.”

But airport manager Don French said he’s comfortable with redesignating the strip, used when wind or fog put the airport’s main runway off limits.

The safety zones are based on the number of takeoffs and landings that occur on a runway, he said. Since the safety zones at issue pertain to only about 3,000 flights annually – about 2 to 3 percent of the airport’s yearly operations – reducing the safety zones is possible under state guidelines. The fewer flight operations over the safety zones, the less risk exists of mishap, he explained.

“That doesn’t mean an airplane won’t crash where you can build a house, but, on the other hand, airplanes can crash anywhere,” French said.

The runway question emerged when officials started updating the city’s general plan, a blueprint for development during the next 20 years or more. As part of the project, city officials will decide what to do with 400 acres the city plans to annex in the Buena Vista Road area, west of the airport. Proposals call for building up to 2,250 homes and apartments.

But maintaining the existing safety zones could slash housing plans in half, and that would make it difficult for the city to meet its state-mandated commitment of building 6,000 homes in the next 25 years.

That led the City Council to consider several options, including shutting the runway or shortening it by 500 feet. Reducing its length would rein in safety zones closer to the airport. But pilots argue it would severely restrict the runway’s use and make it less safe.

Changing the safety zones also was an option, and a majority of a City Council subcommittee studying the runway favors the proposal. The question is tentatively scheduled to return to the full council in April.

The runway’s future is scheduled to be discussed today at an event organized by Action Pajaro Valley, a nonprofit land-use group.

City Manager Carlos Palacios said modifying the safety zone is “a viable option,” but so is the 500-foot reduction. City staff hasn’t decided what to recommend to the council, he said.

“Both are on the table,” Palacios said. “Both are possibilities, but redesignation may be more acceptable to pilots.”

Some pilots acknowledge they may have no choice.

“There could be a compromise, and we’re prepared for that,” said Mark Poteete, who flies a business jet based at the airport.

But Poteete worries about safety if open land is covered with homes. Pilots prefer options in emergencies that don’t call for landing in someone’s neighborhood, he said.

Poteete added that changing the airport is short-sighted. Once houses are built, the safety zones can’t be reinstated if air traffic increases in the future. The airport already is an economic engine for the city and region, and its value in the years to come may increase with anticipated aviation industry changes, such as the reduction of aircraft noise and environmental impact, Poteete said.

“My concern is 30 to 40 years down the road,” he said. “Watsonville’s going to have a real asset. It’s a diamond in the rough.”