April 29, 2006
State agency lands hard on Watsonville airport decision
By Donna Jones
Sentinel Staff Writer
WATSONVILLE - A year-old decision to change the designation of a
runway at Watsonville Municipal Airport isn't flying with the state
Division of Aeronautics.
The state agency, part of Caltrans, is calling for the City Council to
overturn its contentious decision to designate the so-called crosswind
runway as "low activity."
The redesignation resolution cleared the way for future housing and
commercial development in the rural Buena Vista Drive area, north of
"We do have a strong objection to the resolution related to public
safety, pilot safety and compliance with public utility codes and
state law," said Mary Frederick, acting division chief.
The aeronautics division is weighing in now as part of the
environmental review of the city's general plan update, which is a
blueprint for development during the next two decades.
The runway landed in controversy in 2004 when city officials, as part
of the general plan process, began to look for ways to increase the
potential for development on 400 acres they have targeted for
annexation in the Buena Vista area.
If the crosswind runway, a secondary strip used under certain wind and
fog conditions, remained unchanged, plans to build as many as 2,200
homes in the area would be slashed in half due to safety zones.
City officials considered shortening or eliminating the runway, but
they met with opposition from pilots and foes of the proposed annexation.
Redesignation was designed as a compromise.
The designation "low usage" allows for the elimination of some safety
City officials contend the designation is valid because the runway is
used in only about 2 percent of the roughly 100,000 annual takeoffs
and landings at the airport.
But pilots criticized the change as unsafe and said it would set up
conflicts over noise with future neighborhoods. Dan Chauvet of the
Watsonville Pilots Association said Friday he felt vindicated by a
letter Frederick sent to the city April 21.
The letter details the state agency's concerns that the city did not
follow criteria spelled out in the state Airport Land Use Planning
Handbook. The criteria relates to "height, use, noise, safety and
"It supports exactly what we've been saying about legitimate land-use
planning and 'fakeroo' land-use planning that is really developer
land-use planning," Chauvet said. "It supports it 100 percent."
City Community Development Director John Doughty stands by the
council's decision. He said the city conducted an "exhaustive process"
involving all stakeholders, including representatives from the state
aeronautics division and the Federal Aviation Agency.
"It's safe to say state and federal representatives hoped we would
leave it as is, but they acknowledged the council had the authority to
do what it did," Doughty said.
But the state agency's former director, who consulted with the city
back then, retired soon after Watsonville leaders made the change, and
the new chief is taking a different - and harder - line.
Frederick said the city's interpretation of the handbook rules as
guidelines is incorrect. Because Santa Cruz County was exempted from
having a state-mandated airport land-use commission, the handbook must
be followed, she said.
Frederick is also recommending a county commission be established to
oversee decisions about development around the airport.
Doughty said he will share Frederick's letter with the council on May
9, when council members are scheduled to vote on adopting the general
plan and its environmental review.
Frederick said the state agency has enforcement powers, but that's not
a route she wants to even think about right now.
"We are interested in working cooperatively with the city to resolve
these issues," she said.
Contact Donna Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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