Watsonville – New realities, general plans and our airport

Santa Cruz County, the city of Watsonville and the Watsonville Pilots Association should have the same goal: to keep Watsonville Airport fully functional and safe. Most people don’t realize that the county has jurisdiction around two-thirds of the airport. This goal conforms with contracts regarding the airport between the federal government and the city. So how did a long and expensive lawsuit occur over Watsonville’s General Plan 2030 and will general plan updates reflect new realities?

In 2002 Measure U was passed by 60 percent of the registered Watsonville voters. It proposed areas for development and established an urban limit line. Forming a ULL sounds good because it supposedly limits city growth, preserves farmland and maintains the rural character of the valley. But the measure, loosely written, allowed “interpretation,” giving the green light to seemingly build anything anywhere. It provided for development on prime farmland and ignored resource constraints, shoving development where it legally should not occur.

The measure writers were provided with an airport land use compatibility plan and related state laws, but voter information and Measure U text did not inform people that state laws prevent creating safety and noise problems around airports. After years of expensive litigation, the courts have ruled that the state aeronautics laws must be complied with, which require legitimate airport land use planning. The save-the-airport lawsuit cost Watsonville city taxpayers around $1.3 million. Other costs (consultants and staff time) pushed the total amount to about $2 million.

Since Measure U was written in 2002, there is a whole “new normal.” It was largely unforeseen. First, there is new information about the Pajaro Valley water shortage situation and the overdraft of the aquifer.

Second, since 2002, state legislation intended to limit urban sprawl was enacted. The intent is to reduce air pollution from auto emissions and lessen traffic gridlock.

Third, the current recession and credit bubble burst has created strange new economic concepts such as austerity, living within your means, balanced budgets and rebuilding net worth. This is squeezing consumer spending and affecting many businesses.

Fourth, infrastructure costs for utilities, roads and highway are increasingly formidable and there may be no redevelopment money to pay for them.

All these changes make Measure U not relevant into the foreseeable future. What’s good about Measure U is that it describes how the urban limit line can be easily brought in without the fuss of an election. Deletion of the Buena Vista plans would eliminate airport compatibility and other problems, minimizing the chances of further litigation. The court rulings, along with everything else, let those who feel somehow obligated to Measure U off the hook.

Now, six years later, general plans need updating. Yet with inordinate persistence a faction clings to Measure U, their Holy Grail, to support old general plan content. The amount of influence to include Buena Vista seems inappropriate. Why? The old plan supports a developer’s financial interests. To justify their opposition to airport land use planning, a few are forced to pooh-pooh the creation of risk, even in light of the tragic history at other airports and recent events at ours.

Looking forward, general plan content has to be approved by the court. The pertinent parts must adopt criteria in the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook. To facilitate the handbook’s application, a document, “General Plan Details and Specifics,” was produced in 2010 by four local, knowledgeable aviation people. They spent six months producing the document and had it edited by an attorney. The document is based on the handbook’s criteria and local conditions around Watsonville Airport. It’s also intended for the county general plan, because county jurisdiction surrounds two-thirds of the airport.

For safety and noise reasons the handbook provides for zones. Zoning changes will actually affect few property owners. The largest zone around the airport (not associated with runways) has practically no restrictions, except for high obstacles. In zones aligned with runways, only new additional development is restricted; retention of most remaining open space will improve safety.

The public has legal rights. That includes people, both on the ground and those traveling by aircraft, protection of their health, safety and welfare. Zone changes will benefit the welfare and quality of life of people living in the Pajaro Valley (water availability, traffic gridlock restriction, and maintain farming). Developers espouse property rights, but a general plan update must include recognition of other’s rights and interests.

Jobs depend on business. Many businesses need the airport for transportation. A possible increase in business aircraft use here and nationally offers a glimmer of hope of an improving economy. A good general plan insures a regional airport, available in fire, flood, earthquake, and injury/health emergencies, and it has an educational and career-building function.

The common goal: a general plan that reflects current realities, including having a safe and a fully functional airport.

dchauvetDan Chauvet is a local pilot and a board member of the Watsonville Pilots’ Association. This column was written before the July 7 accident that claimed the lives of four people.