An appellate court has set aside the City of Watsonville's general plan on grounds that it is incompatible with the State Aeronautics Act, and because the city failed to consider a lower growth alternative in the general plan's environmental impact report. The ruling is the latest development in Watsonville growth wars that extend back to the 1980s.

This case is another instance in which the supposed primacy of a general plan has, on a selected basis, been subverted to other special purposes, such as coastal planning, preservation of San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe and, as in Watsonville, airport planning.

Watsonville Airport Master Plan

The Watsonville Airport is located on the edge of the city, which is three miles from the shoreline of the Monterey Bay and 17 miles south of Santa Cruz. The airport's main runway accounts for a majority (88 percent) of airport operations, and its crosswind runway accounts for the balance. In 2005, the city amended its airport master plan (WAMP), re-designating the crosswind runway as a "low activity runway" and either modifying or eliminating existing land use restrictions around the airport, which serves private and corporate aircraft.

Later that year, in related activity, the city circulated a draft EIR for a new general plan that called for the development of 2,250 new housing units around the airport, in an area known as Buena Vista (see CP&DR Local Watch, February 2003) []. In May 2006, the city certified the EIR, adopted a state ment of overriding considerations, and approved the new 2030 general plan. As part of general plan approval, the city identified three significant unmitigated impacts: increased population and housing, loss of prime farmland, and the potential to impact groundwater supply.

A coalition comprising Friends of Buena Vista, the Sierra Club, and an association of pilots sued to overturn the general plan approval because of its designs for growth in the rural Buena Vista area. At trial, the Santa Cruz County Superior Court held that the general plan was inconsistent with the State Aeronautics Act (SAA). The court also ruled that the EIR inadequately analyzed impacts on aviation and traffic, and that it failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives. The city appealed on the grounds that its general plan did not violate the SAA handbook and that the alternatives it presented were adequate; the city conceded that the EIR did not adequately address traffic impacts to Highway 1. The opponents filed their own appeal, challenging the Superior Court's determination that the analysis of groundwater impacts was sufficient.

Deviations From SAA Handbook

A significant portion of the appellate court's decision is devoted to the extent to which the City of Watsonville is subject to provisions of the SAA, in particular, Public Resources Code § 21670.1. Not all cities and airports are treated equally under the SAA. Watsonville is located in one of the rare counties that is not required to have an Airport Land Use Commission. Consequently, the duty for safety planning for land uses surrounding the airport falls directly to the City of Watsonville.

The court had to determine which provisions of the Division of Aeronautics Handbook apply to a jurisdiction such as Watsonville. Key to this case, the Sixth District Court of Appeal concluded that the handbook's safety and density criteria applied to Watsonville and similar jurisdictions. The court further determined that the city's redesignation of the crosswind runway and easing of development regulations was inconsistent with the handbook's restrictions. Although the runway redesignation and the new development regulations were contained in the airport master plan and adopted one year before the general plan was adopted, the appellate court reexamined the WAMP analysis in the context of the general plan update. The court concluded that the WAMP, and therefore the general plan, ran afoul of the Aeronautics Act, thus invalidating an action that the city had considered to be final.  

Turning to the California Environmental Quality Act issues, the appellate court held that the EIR was inadequate because it failed to assess impacts resulting from planning deviations from the SAA handbook, a requirement of CEQA Guidelines section 15154(a). While the city's EIR took the WAMP into account explicitly, WAMP did not address the land use compatibility and noise for the Buena Vista area because it was written with the implicit assumption that subsequent city planning for the Buena Vista area would address those issues.

Inadequacy of Alternatives

With respect to alternatives, the city's EIR included three: Alternative 1 accounts for the same level of new development throughout the city (including Buenta Vista) but would place it all within the city boundaries; Alternative 2 included the same level of development but with one-half of growth in new areas; Alternative 3 was no project (i.e. no new general plan).  

Compared to the proposed general plan, Alternative 1 would reduce impacts to farmland to less-than-significant. Alternative 3 would reduce impacts of population growth to less-than-significant. All three would reduce impacts to groundwater supply. However, the appellate court determined a more suitable alternative should have been studied – a reduced development alternative. Because most impacts identified in the EIR were growth-related, the court said the city should have studied a lower growth alternative, which the court believed still would have responded to 10 of 12 stated objectives for the general plan. Because a reduced development scenario could, in the eyes of the appellate court, have been compatible with a majority of the objectives and would have offered more diversity (compared with the studied alternatives), it should have been included.

"The administrative record provides no justification for the FEIR's failure to include within its alternatives analysis a reduced development alternative that would have satisfied the 10 objectives of the project that did not require the level of development contemplated by the project," Justice Nathan Mihara wrote for the court. "Analysis of such an alternative would have provided the decisionmakers with information about how most of the project's objectives could be satisfied without the level of environmental impacts that would flow from the project."

Instead of determining whether or not the alternatives studied provide a reasoned choice, the court essentially substituted its thinking in place of that of the lead agency to come up with a different range of alternatives.

Water Analysis

Though the opponents appealed the trial court ruling on the sufficiency of the water supply analysis, the court of appeal affirmed the adequacy of the EIR on this issue. The EIR included information regarding the particulars of the specific groundwater basin upon which the city relied. The EIR also provided documentation as to relative water use of agriculture versus development and anticipated water conservation measures, and the EIR concluded that the new general plan would not significantly worsen the current overdraft situation.

In rejecting the challenge to the water analysis, the appellate court recognized several concepts important in EIR challenges: 1) the EIR is not required to identify the actual source of water, 2) there are "inherent uncertainties in long-term forecasts" and 3) speculation about difficulties in long-term financing of water supply projects does not invalidate the EIR analysis.

The Case:
Watsonville Pilots Association v. City of Watsonville, No. H033097, 2010 DJDAR 5423. Filed March 15, 2010. Ordered published April 12, 2010.

The Lawyers:
For the pilots association: Jonathan Wittwer, Wittwer & Parkin (831) 429-4055.
For the city: Andrea Saltzman, Jarvis, Fay, Doporto & Gibson (510) 655-6086.