• email
  • share

City of Watsonville’s General Plan Update Violated State Aeronautics Act and the EIR Violated CEQA

The State Aeronautics Act is not commonly the subject of land use lawsuits, but it was for the Sixth District Court of Appeal in the case of Watsonville Pilots Association v. City of Watsonville. The court upheld a challenge to the City of Watsonville 2030 General Plan update, finding that the plan did not reflect statutorily required elements and standards for airport safety.

The related EIR fared little better as it failed to adequately analyze airport compatibility issues and a reduced development alternative; however, the court upheld the EIR water supply analysis based on the factors in Vineyard Area Citizens v. City of Rancho Cordova.

The City’s 2030 General Plan update contemplated a future growth area to the north and west of a City-owned airport. Known as Buena Vista, this area would accommodate approximately 75% of future developable land, including 40% of the General Plan’s new residential housing. The 2030 General Plan acknowledged safety issues from airport operations, such as noise impacts, ground safety and flight hazards, but did not identify airport safety among the significant unavoidable impacts. The 2030 General Plan update was adopted and the EIR certified in May 2006.

Meanwhile, the City adopted a modified Airport Master Plan (WAMP) in 2005. Safety Compatibility Zones included in the 2003 WAMP were modified to relax restrictions on residential uses, schools, daycare centers, nursing homes and hospitals in the airport area. These zones covered a significant portion of the Buena Vista area that was otherwise anticipated for residential and other urban growth under the General Plan.

The City’s approvals were challenged by a pilots’ association, a community group and the Sierra Club. The challenge was successful at the trial court, which found that the General Plan was inconsistent with the State Aeronautics Act, and that the EIR failed to properly analyze aviation and traffic issues and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives. The trial court, did, however, uphold the EIR analysis of water supply for growth anticipated under the new General Plan. The court of appeal affirmed.

Addressing the State Aeronautics Act (SAA), the court determined that the City had not adopted safety and density criteria from the Airport Land Use Planning Handbook and had unlawfully eliminated or altered airport Safety Compatibility Zones and standards. The court identified how the safety, density and other criteria from the Handbook apply in different situations. In what the court described as “ALUC counties”, a city would be guided by the height, use, noise and other criteria in the Handbook. The court also described “alternative procedure counties” in which an alternative procedure for airport planning must rely on the height, use, noise and other criteria in the Handbook. Finally, the court described a “no-procedure county”, in which a city general plan must adopt the criteria in the Handbook. The City of Watsonville was in a no-procedure county, and thus had no discretion to pick and choose among the Handbook criteria. Because the City’s 2030 General Plan omitted or modified the Handbook safety zones and other safety and density criteria, the General Plan was invalid for violation of statutory requirements of the SAA.

Turning to the CEQA challenges, the court agreed with the trial court that the EIR was faulty. First, contrary to CEQA section 21096, the EIR analysis did not use the Handbook as a technical resource to analyze airport-related safety hazards and noise problems. Instead, the EIR relied on the modified 2005 WAMP, a plan which contained limited discussion of airport safety, which relied in turn on local general plans for compatible airport area land uses, and did not include the required Handbook safety criteria. Second, the EIR failed to identify a reduced-development alternative even though reduced growth potential could have avoided or substantially reduced the General Plan’s significant unavoidable impacts and would have satisfied most of the objectives for the general plan project. Further, the court declined to adopt the City’s argument that the No Project alternative sufficed as a reduced development alternative.

The court upheld the EIR water supply analysis, explaining how the Vineyard requirements were satisfied. First, the EIR identified groundwater as the likely source of water for potential future growth under the general plan. Second, the EIR identified the uncertainties of this supply source due to overdraft conditions in the water basin. Finally, the EIR discussed in detail various public agency measures intended to address the overdraft through conservation, conversion of agricultural lands to less water-intensive urban uses and other measures.

This decision provides a useful summary of the Airport Land Use Commission statute and processes. It is particularly useful guidance for integrating long-term land use planning and airport planning through the general plan process and related CEQA review. The decision also provides an example of a successful water supply analysis that satisfies the California Supreme Court’s direction in the Vineyard case.

For more information on the Watsonville Pilots case, CEQA or other land use matters, please contact Julia Bond at 1.800.464.3559.