Last year the Watsonville Community Development Director invited representatives of the Watsonville Pilots Association (WPA) to a series of meetings. The purpose was to revise airport land use planning in the update’s chapter 13. Since the meetings were discussions (not negotiations), final text was controlled by the city.
Significant improvements were made in making the plan compliant. The WPA employed an expensive legal review to reduce the chances of a series of future lawsuits. The WPA has a large investment of time, effort and money in the update. It looked like everything was headed for consensus. But a significant disagreement occurred, of all things, on land use planning essentially on the airport itself.
The problem is the wording in a small section of chapter 13 regarding private land parcels right next to the runways. The land has been used for growing and harvesting hay, and sometimes grazing cattle. These uses are compatible with the airport and its operations. One owner was a pilot and flew his own airplane. Past airport managers did not feel pressured to be aggressive in acquiring the parcels for the airport. Things change, especially proposed land use and boundary lines. Now neither the airport nor WPA has funds for land purchase.
The courts have ruled that in Santa Cruz County, planning around an airport must be compliant with the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook. The FAA requires compliance with obstacle height limitation and grant assurance requisites. The state handbook describes six safety zones. The private parcels of concern are located in three different safety zones, the traffic pattern zone (6), and two zones associated with runways, the inner turning zone (3) and runway sideline zone (5). The new Nordic Natural building is located in zone 6, the traffic pattern zone, not a runway safety zone. The WPA saw that building location in zone 6 as OK in reference to the handbook, although practically on the airport. The other parcels are located in zones associated with runways, too close for safe public use. It’s like proposing putting the public in the freeway median and right-of-way.
The private parcels in zones 3 and 5 are in an unusually critical safety or high risk area because of the airport’s specific operational requirements. The highest frequency of rejected landings (go-arounds) occurs there. A commercial banner towing business uses the runway sideline zone to pick up and drop banners. That involves overflight at around about 15-20 feet above the ground. And during airshows this whole area is required to be evacuated by the FAA. The area has a history of incidents and accidents.
The appeals court decision requires that, in Santa Cruz County specifically, all the criteria in the handbook must be incorporated in a local plan. There’s no “pick and choose” in what to include or omit; and there can be “no discretion” in handbook interpretation. In other words the decision requires that land use planning contain the best practices described in the state handbook. The old General Plan 2030 (rescinded by court order) contained worse practices, build anything everywhere. Best practices require planning that provides for a high degree of safety around the airport. It seems moving from worse practices to best practices is still a stretch. To facilitate a solution the pilots association provided staff with best practices text that could be cut and pasted in a matter of minutes. Staff said no. Why?
WPA has good reason to believe that the city development department made commitments to a development consultant and new owners. These commitments were made sometime during the six years after litigation started; business as usual in spite of the legal actions. Was that prudent?
A general plan must contain safe planning, because subsequent specific plans must be consistent with the general plan. When forced to, the WPA will take legal measures to require changes in a plan that negatively affects airport safety, operational capabilities and business transportation.
Dan Chauvet is a retired corporate pilot who lives in Watsonville.