Friday, March 22, 2008
Court rules against Watsonville’s growth plans
By Donna Jones
The Santa Cruz (CA) Sentinel
WATSONVILLE — A judge threw out Watsonville’s long-range growth plan Friday, ruling that the city broke state aviation and environmental law. Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Watsonville Pilots Association and the neighborhood advocacy group, Friends of Buena Vista, prevents the city from permitting the construction of hundreds of homes north of the airport. “It’s a resounding victory,” said lawyer William Parkin, who represented the pilots group. “Clearly the city of Watsonville needs to comply with the law, with the aviation law and [the California Environmental Quality Act].” The pilots, concerned about safety issues and the potential for conflicts with future neighbors over airport noise, joined with the Friends of Buena Vista to take legal action after the City Council adopted in a new general plan, Watsonville Vista 2030, in 2006. Friends of Buena Vista wants to protect their rural neighborhood from heavy growth.
Burdick found the city violated California environmental rules because the environmental review of the general plan didn’t adequately analyze the impact of future development in the Buena Vista Road area on Highway 1 traffic and aviation. He also said the city failed to consider a “reasonable range of alternatives” to development in the area.
But perhaps more threatening to Watsonville’s plans to grow is Burdick’s ruling on a 2005 city resolution that eliminated a runway safety zone and reduced restrictions on development in another safety zone. Without the change, city officials have said they would have to dramatically scale back home building in the area.
Burdick said guidelines in a state aviation handbook that would have prevented the safety changes are mandatory for the city because there’s no independent airport commission in the county.
“That’s a serious problem for them substantively,” Parkin said.
Parkin said as part of the judge’s order to look at alternatives, the city has the opportunity to look at more in-fill development within its existing boundaries instead of growing into the Buena Vista area.
City Attorney Alan Smith said there’s no case law to support Burdick’s ruling that the city was wrong to consider the aviation handbook only advisory.
“He’s the judge and he gets to decide,” Smith said. “It will be up to the council to decide whether they want to challenge it or not.”
Mayor Kimberly Petersen, acknowledging differing opinions on the council, said she didn’t know which direction the city would take. She said she’ll wait for a briefing by Smith before making up her mind.
“It’s definitely going to be a hard decision,” Petersen said.
Councilman Oscar Rios said an appeal is one option. Closing the airport’s so-called crosswind runway, which the safety zones are designed to protect, is another.
Pilots said they’re not worried. They believe there’s too much support for the airport across the county for the city to shutter the runway.
“The objective was to keep [the airport] safe … and to keep the airport viable,” said pilot Dan Chauvet. “The court ruling helps us keep it that way.”
Councilman Dale Skillicorn, who voted against the general plan in 2006 because of the airport issues, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling.
“It fits with my reason for opposing it in the first place,” he said. “I think that sort of justifies that.”
Editor’s Note: Clearly the judge did not agree with the City of Watsonville’s strategy of ignoring the significant environmental issues associated with this housing developer backed effort.