Appeals court sides with California pilots


Local groups stand firm against encroachment

March 25, 2010

The city of Watsonville, Calif., violated state law when it approved a plan to eliminate safety zones around Watsonville Municipal Airport to develop the area, an appeals court affirmed March 15.

Local pilots have been battling to protect the airport for years: The Watsonville Pilots Association (WPA), the Friends of Buena Vista (FBV), and the local Sierra Club filed suit against the city after it modified safety zones to allow high-density housing close to the airport. The California Court of Appeals decision demonstrates that cities and counties cannot ignore the protections the state has put in place for airports—and affirms the power of local aviation groups in protecting airports.

“This is a tremendous win for pilots in California and airport preservation,” said AOPA Vice President of Local Airport Advocacy Bill Dunn. “Airport sponsors can’t simply change airport master plans and airport safety zones just to accommodate development that will encroach on the airport.”

In 2005, the city had modified its airport master plan to reclassify crosswind Runway 8/26 to a “low activity” runway and modified safety zones in order to allow high-density residential development adjacent to the airport—up to 2,250 new units in the Buena Vista area as part of the city’s 2030 general plan. The city certified the environmental impact report in May 2006 and adopted the general plan.

Local pilot Dan Chauvet led the WPA efforts in opposition to the city’s plan, and their efforts have paid off. A state superior court ordered the city to set aside its certification of the environmental impact report, its approval of the general plan, and its 2005 resolution amending the airport master plan. Now, the appeals court has upheld the 2008 decision that the city violated the California State Aeronautics Act and the California Environmental Act (CEQA) because it failed to adequately analyze the impact of its plan on aviation, traffic, and the water supply, and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives.

“Watsonville Pilots Association’s Dan Chauvet has been a one-man army in keeping this issue on track and moving forward,” said Dunn, who has spoken with local pilots about the efforts at Watsonville. Chauvet’s dogged efforts demonstrate how pilots can make a difference by engaging in their communities, Dunn added. “Be involved in issues affecting your airport. Active involvement by the local pilot and airport user community can and do have a positive impact.”