Watsonville – Fresh Thinking Needed for new General Plan

The nearly decade-long debate and litigation process involving the Watsonville Pilots Association, Friends of Buena Vista, the Sierra Club, along with Caltrans Division of Aeronautics versus the City of Watsonville, has finally concluded. The protracted process included countless meetings, extensive input from all groups, and a favorable ruling by the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, which supported the Pilots Association and Friends of Buena Vista (et al). Although the city challenged the ruling, 18 months later the appeals court upheld the earlier decision, thereby establishing a legal precedent that mandated compliance with the Airport Land Use Handbook. The court ruled what community members had countless times asserted — that the city did not meet the standards of the California Environmental Quality Act and violated state laws regarding airport safety in its efforts to expand into the Buena Vista area. The cost in time, misdirected energy and resources, as well as the expenditure of local funds, cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, money better spent on providing the community with essential services.

At issue was Watsonville’s General Plan 2030. It prescribed city expansion near the airport and the construction of hundreds of homes within the airport’s protection zones aligned with two existing runways. This was accomplished when the City Council passed Resolution 74-05 to restrict airport safety zones in order to facilitate maximum build-out of homes, jeopardizing public safety and causing other operational restrictions.

All of this litigation could have been averted by simply creating a more inclusive process that valued and listened to community input. Some would say that developer contributions of more than $500,000 had predisposed General Plan 2030 content.

In 1996, to comply with state law, the Watsonville Airport Advisory Committee and the airport manager produced an Airport Land Use Plan. Another plan was developed in 2002. The city rejected both. Starting in 2001, the Pilots Association and Friends of Buena Vista participated in the General Plan 2030 formation process at every level, trying to point out all the significant issues. The General Plan contained questionable policies, defied prohibitions and ignored public safety and geographical constraints. When the city passed General Plan 2030, none of the vital issues we raised were addressed or included.

After many years of trying to reach a compromise with the city and being repeatedly ignored, the only action left for those directly affected was to raise funds, file a lawsuit and secure some relief through the legal process. The Pilots Association and the Friends of Buena Vista could not capitulate and allow these violations of California aeronautics and environmental law that would create an unsafe situation for aircraft occupants and people on the ground.

The General Plan 2030 was challenged on legal grounds. The appeals court affirmed that the city violated the Aeronautics Law. The court also noted that the city failed to explore other options and alternatives to the plans set forth in GP 2030, violating environmental laws.

On May 11, the City Council complied with the court’s decision and rescinded General Plan 2030 and its Environmental Impact Report, along with Resolution 74-05. The policies and procedures of the past created financial bleeding for all involved, particularly the City of Watsonville, as it must reimburse litigants for all legal costs incurred throughout the process. Our best guess is that the legal expenditures alone for all parties involved could cost the city in excess of 1 million dollars! It didn’t have to happen this way.

Looking Ahead — An Opportunity

A new General Plan needs to be prepared as a result of the ruling by the court, creating an opportunity to revisit the issues and arrive at new conclusions. It is an opportunity to formulate new and better policies and legitimate airport land use precepts, which by law must be included in the city and county general plans.

A new General Plan must reflect current realities, prohibitions and constraints to preclude urban sprawl. Buena Vista development is not practical or economically feasible and cannot be supported by infrastructure costs or water usage. The new General Plan will require the development of a new EIR that must reflect conditions as they exist currently. In addition, the new General Plan needs to be more specific regarding job creation within the city boundaries. This area suffers from high unemployment and growth must include a focus on redevelopment that provides an economic foundation within the community.

There is a new opportunity to be more inclusive of divergent opinions. Thoroughly reviewing options and alternatives will build trust. This is not a time to create a process that will lead us back to the courtroom and expend funds in a frivolous manner that benefits no one.

Bert Post and Dan Chauvet are members of the board of directors of the Friends of Buena Vista and Watsonville Pilots Association, respectively. The opinions of columnists are not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.