Watsonville Airport Theatened by Developers Funding Government Studies

Sunday, October 30, 2005
Airport needs unbiased planning The impact of developers on compatible land-use planning
By Dan Chauvet
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel

The Watsonville Pilots Association is by no means alone in feeling that the present draft of the Watsonville General Plan 2030 creates a number of problems. One problem is that the content contradicts one of its own laudable goals, to “Maintain or improve the airport’s safety and functionality.” The contradiction is that the plan contains incompatible high-density building development in close proximity to Watsonville Airport, including areas aligned with runways. The General Plan includes 2,250 homes, schools, apartment buildings and related commercial development in the Buena Vista area. The General Plan 2030 circumvents the basic intent of state laws and the State Airport Land Use Planning Handbook. The basic intent is stated in PUC statute 21670: “it is in the public interest to provide for the orderly development of each public use airport in this state and the area surrounding these airports … and to prevent the creation of new noise and safety problems.” The General Plan 2030 sets the base for a Specific Plan that would create safety and noise problems, and the draft EIR simply rubber-stamps the General Plan without mitigating these issues. A review of the paper trail thanks to the Freedom of Information Act that leads up to the Buena Vista area’s inclusion in the General Plan looks to us like there is substantial developer influence. In a memo from John Doughty, development director, to City Manager Carlos Palacios, dated Sept. 26, 2000, stated, “Residents of the Calabasas Road area expressed almost unanimous opposition to annexation throughout the public hearing process. … Given that inhabited annexations are subject to approval of the residents of the area, the City Council concluded that there was little likelihood that a major expansion beyond the area now contemplated was feasible in light of the opposition of the residents.”

The paper trail shows a subsequent plan change: in a memo from Doughty to Palacios dated Sept. 26, 2001: “Without financial assistance of Cruz Care Partners, Barry Swenson Builders and/or other private interests, the project [Buena Vista] cannot proceed. … Staff calculates a proposed budget of $500,000 with the lion share of costs being supported by Cruz Care Partners, Barry Swenson Builders and/or other interested private parties. This estimate does not include in-kind city costs which are estimated to be in excess of $150,000.”

On July 29, 2002, Thatcher & Thompson, Architects, faxed a memo to the city staff that contained an outline for “Buena Vista Plan Organization and Content,” plus it included this statement: “The City should, along with help from public facilitators such as Daniel Iacofano, engage the community in this process.” It should be noted that Action Pajaro Valley employed Daniel Iacofano to lead it in planning, which resulted in coming up with Measure U. City manger and co-chairman of Action Pajaro Valley, Carlos Palacios, sent a letter to Matthew Thompson of the architectural firm dated Jan. 6, 2003: ” … At that time we indicated our strong belief that City control of the consultant team selection process and day-to-day oversight of the contractors was necessary to address objectivity real or perceived questions.”

Apparently, it’s not uncommon for developers to partner financially with cities in developments. However, we feel that here the paper trail clearly shows that content of the General Plan 2030 and the rubber-stamp EIR that includes the Buena Vista area, is being steered by developers.

The General Plan 2030 Steering Committee voiced its intention to address the airport land-use issue and come up with a recommendation. The Steering Committee was provided copies of the Watsonville Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan that reflects the basic intent of airport land-use planning laws and the state’s Airport Land Use Planning Handbook. The city development director candidly said that he instructed the Steering Committee not to address the airport land-use issue because it is too contentious. Thus, the General Plan 2030 still contains the Buena Vista high-density development, which removes safe forced-landing options for pilots. It creates safety and noise problems. It jeopardizes the airport that is used 250,000 times each year by people for business and personal travel to and from Watsonville and the region. These people are not adding to road and highway gridlock. It jeopardizes an irreplaceable transportation facility needed in emergencies such as the Loma Prieta earthquake. A responsible plan goes beyond developer’s desires. It goes beyond the city’s desire to rake in a 3 percent real-estate transaction fee on all future sales applicable to new developments. Revision of the General Plan that is unbiased, objective and realistic, that concedes limitations, is essential for promoting the safety, health and welfare of the people in this region.

Dan Chauvet is a member of the Watsonville Pilots Association.
Editor’s Note: The WPA is a chapter of the California Pilots Association. Dan is an excellent example of someone who is making a difference for GA in California.

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