Watsonville – Appeals Court Hands Victory to Pilots

WATSONVILLE — Watsonville shouldn’t have changed runway safety zones to allow up to 2,200 homes to be built near its airport, a state appeals court ruled Monday.

The ruling upholds a 2008 decision by Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick that also concluded the city did not adequately analyze traffic and alternative options to growth before approving its 2030 general plan.

Monday’s ruling means the city will have to rework the plan or appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

The city also will have to reinstate the runway safety zones, drastically reducing the number of homes that can be built, as well as preventing nursing homes, day care centers and schools from being built.

I’m delighted,” said lawyer Alexander Henson, who represented Friends of Buena Vista, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “I did not understand why the city appealed at the time. I’m still mystified and the taxpayers of the city should be mystified as well.”

The City Council approved the 2030 general plan, a blueprint for city growth for the next two decades, on a close vote in 2006. The plan included a controversial expansion into a rural area north of the airport around Buena Vista Road and relied on reducing or eliminating safety zones around a secondary runway to clear the way for development.

The Watsonville Pilots Association, Friends of Buena Vista, a neighborhood advocacy group, and Sierra Club filed a lawsuit.

The issue has generated interest in the aviation community, which is concerned about the fate of small airports in the face of development.

Pilot Dan Chauvet said news of the victory spread quickly. There’s a whole lot of happy people all over this state and in Oregon and Arizona ,” he said.

Chauvet said city leaders were warned they were putting pilots, residents and the airport’s future at risk when they reduced or eliminated safety zones associated with the secondary runway.

City officials argued safety provisions in a state aviation handbook were merely guidelines, not mandates.

The pilots maintained the city traded away its discretionary power over the handbook provisions to be exempted from state law requiring countywide commissions to oversee land-use decisions near airports. For Watsonville , they said, the guidelines are mandatory.

“It was a very unfortunate situation,” Chauvet said. “We were forced into doing this. Otherwise we were going to have an airport that was not going to be whole, safe or usable.”

City Manager Carlos Palacios did not return a call Monday. City Attorney Alan Smith said he was reviewing the 42-page appeals court decision.

Councilman Manuel Bersamin, who supported the runway decision and voted for the general plan, declined to comment until he had time to review the ruling.

Antonio Rivas, the only other member of the council serving at the time of the 2006 vote, could not be reached to comment. Nor could Mayor Luis Alejo.

The decisions can be viewed at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/H033097.PDF.

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City of Watsonville Loses Appeal Over Airport Land

Tuesday, Mar 16th, 2010
BY: JON CHOWN
The 6th Appellate District Court of Appeal ruled against the City of Watsonville Monday, upholding the Santa Cruz County Superior Court’s decision that the city violated law when it planned a dense housing development near Watsonville Municipal Airport .

The decision will force the city to rewrite portions of its General Plan 2030, do additional studies, follow the California Airport Land Use Handbook precisely and pay the attorney fees for Watsonville Pilots Association, Friends of Buena Vista and the Sierra Club, which were partners in the suit against the city.

The ruling was made public around 3:30 p.m. on Monday. Just two hours later, Watsonville City Attorney Al Smith said he had not finished reading and analyzing the 42-page ruling, so he could not say if he would recommend the city accept the ruling or continue its appeal. Smith said that if the city accepted the decision, it would have to do an additional study on Highway 1 traffic, conduct an additional analysis that includes less construction and determine how the city will follow the Airport Land Use Handbook.For the complete article see the 03-16-2010 issue.

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