Watsonville defends airport safety decision in court
By Donna Jones – Santa Cruz Sentinel
SAN JOSE – A day after a small plane crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, Watsonville officials were in an appeals court defending a decision to eliminate safety zones around Watsonville Municipal Airport.
Editor’s Note: Just as we have been previously reporting the City of Watsonville is attempting to overturn the decision against it because they were trying to ignore potential noise and safety issues at the airport that their Plan 2030 would cause.
The city is asking judges from the state’s Sixth Appellate District to overturn a 2008 decision by Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick requiring Watsonville to reinstate the zones.
The elimination of some safety zones cleared the way for the possible construction of hundreds of homes, along with schools, nursing homes and day care centers, in the Buena Vista Road area near the end of the airport’s secondary runway. But pilots argued the decision put them and future residents at risk, as well as setting up potential conflicts between neighborhoods and the airport over noise.
In her opening remarks before the three-judge panel Thursday, lawyer Andrea Saltzman, representing the city, acknowledged Wednesday’s crash near a Palo Alto airport, was on everyone’s mind.
But, she said, “the issue isn’t whether we decided wisely and safely to delete the zones. The issue is whether we had the right to delete the zones.”
Saltzman maintained the safety criteria in a state aviation handbook are not rules but guidelines, which the city can modify after evaluating risk.
Opposing lawyers argued that the city traded away its discretionary power over the safety criteria for an exemption from a state mandate to establish an independent airport oversight commission.
Lawyer Jonathan Wittwer said the state Division of Aeronautics, which sided with the Watsonville Pilots Association in its lawsuit against the city over its 2030 general plan, informed officials prior to the zone change that it would “create a hazardous and dangerous condition.”
Coming after Wednesday’s crash in East Palo Alto, fewer than 20 miles from the courtroom, the issue seemed to resonate. The pilot and his two passengers were killed when a twin-engine Cessna 310 slammed into homes shortly after takeoff from nearby Palo Alto Airport. No one was injured on the ground, “miraculously,” according to a fire official on the scene.
Watsonville had a close call in September 2006, when a pilot who was trying to make it to the airport after his single-engine Grumman ran out of gas crash-landed in the front yard of a home on nearby Loma Prieta Avenue. No one was injured, but a natural gas line was severed.
Saltzman, who faced more questions from judges than her opposing counsel, was asked whether the city had a responsibility to ensure neighborhoods are safe from crashes.
She pointed out that Watsonville owns the airport, and said officials consulted with aviation experts and conducted a public hearing before eliminating the zones.
“It’s our airport,” she said. “(Officials) are not likely to do something dangerous to the city … We want our airport to be safe. We want our city to be safe.”
After the hearing, Wittwer declined to comment pending a decision. City Attorney Alan Smith said he was “cautiously optimistic.”
The judges have 90 days to announce their ruling.