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County approves building rules around Watsonville airport

SANTA CRUZ — The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday updated the county’s rules for development around Watsonville Municipal Airport, a set of regulations that now align with those of the state.

The Airport Combining Zone District plan creates six safety zones for the unincorporated lands in a two-mile radius around the airport.

Safety Zone 1 – the Runway Protection Zone – is where pilots are taking off or on their final approach for landing. No new construction is allowed in this zone.

By contrast, Safety Zone 6 is the furthest from the airport and allows or residential uses, restaurants, retail, greenhouses, warehouses, light industrial and aviation activities that are FAA compliant.

While the rules are largely the same as they were before, they are now more closely aligned with the California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook, which is published by Caltrans Division of Aeronautics.

Residents should not expect to see many substantive changes in the new rules, although new subdivisions of residential properties will be prohibited in some of the zones, said Santa Cruz County Resource Planner David Carlson.

It could also trigger noise abatement regulations such as requiring extra insulation in new homes close to the airport.

“It’s not going to have any effect on your average homeowner,” Carlson said. “It will limit further subdivision of land near the airport. (Residents) may find out it’s not allowed if they are in certain safety zones”

The new rules go into effect in 31 days.

A portion of the areas in question extends into the coastal zones, the plan also has to go to the California Coastal Commission for approval, Carlson said.

The rules were created to stop construction around the airport that makes flying unsafe, Carlson said. 

“It is intended to foster compatibility between Watsonville Municipal Airport and surrounding land uses,” Carlson said. “It is ultimately to protect the airport.”

Watsonville has had its own experience with establishing development rules around its airport. The City Council in May 2006 approved its 2030 general plan, a guiding document for growth for the next two decades. 

The plan was challenged by the Watsonville Pilots Association, Friends of Buena Vista and the Sierra Club, which called for eliminating safety zones at the end of the runways.

Critics said that could have allowed more than 2,000 homes and retail spaces to be built on 465 acres near the airport. 

A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge ruled against the general plan in April 2008, saying that the accompanying environmental impact report was inadequate. The judge also ruled that the EIR failed to fully address the impact that the new homes would have on Highway 1 traffic.

After a lengthy battle in which the city revised the safety element and environmental review several more times, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge struck down the 2030 plan on Sept. 12, 2014.

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