Watsonville Airport- Housing Development Being Questioned

Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Aviation agency suggests safety a concern in Buena Vista plan
By Donna Jones
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel

WATSONVILLE – Building hundreds of homes west of Watsonville Municipal Airport could pose safety risks and create conflicts over noise, according to a state aviation agency. In an Oct. 24 letter to the city, the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics questions the City Council’s April decision to redesignate the airport’s secondary landing strip as “low activity” to clear the way for building homes on land that would otherwise be restricted for safety reasons.

Though the odds of an aircraft injuring someone on the ground are low, “an aircraft accident is a high consequence event,” writes Sandy Hesnard, aviation principal planner.

To keep people safe, restrictions on building “are essential,” she adds.

Though the aeronautics agency’s role is advisory, the letter has provided ammunition to opponents of plans to build as many as 2,250 homes in the rural Buena Vista Road area.

“The whole Buena Vista thing should be scrapped,” said Dan Chauvet, a member of the Watsonville Pilots Association. “The whole thing is just poorly conceived.”

But John Doughty, the city’s community development director, downplayed the letter’s significance.

“I don’t read this as the sky is falling,” he said.

The city decided to restrict the runway to current levels of use – which are low enough under state guidelines to allow for the elimination of some safety zones – after consulting with an expert and with then-Caltrans aeronautics chief Austin Wiswell, Doughty said.

Wiswell, who did not object to the plan at public meetings here, has since retired.

If the safety zones weren’t eliminated, the potential for housing development in the Buena Vista Road area would have been slashed in half.

City officials studied eliminating or shortening the secondary strip as a way around the development obstacle before settling on the designation change as a compromise.

Pilots, who expressed concerns about safety and the risk to the airport’s viability, had opposed changes.

The Caltrans letter was written in response to an environmental analysis of the city’s proposed general plan, the blueprint for development during the next 20 years.

Protecting airports “from incompatible land use encroachment is vital to California’s economic future,” Hesnard writes.

She declined to comment Tuesday, citing department policy, and referred questions to a Caltrans spokesman.

Spokesman David Anderson said Caltrans doesn’t regulate airports. That’s up to local authorities, he said.

“Caltrans has expertise in airport safety and airport land-use compatibility,” he said. “We bring important issues … to the attention of decision makers.”

Editor’s Note: It’s nice to have a name associated with a government agency which we can refer to when something goes wrong. Should Watsonville decide to move forward on their plan to put housing so close to the runway, we can ask Mr. Doughty, the city’s community development director, why he wasn’t concerned.

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