Tarmo Hannula/Pajaronian file The main runway at Watsonville Municipal Airport

The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday voted to close the crosswind runway at the airport, a move city officials say will open up more of the city for development of housing and commercial space.

Airport Director Rayvon Williams told the council that closing the shorter runway—officially called deactivating it—will take about four years, and will involve numerous steps. 

This includes coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration, amending the Airport Master Plan, conducting environmental review and studying the potential impact on the pilot community, among other things.

After that, he said, it can still be used for purposes such as staging emergency services during disasters such as earthquakes and fires. But pilots will be prohibited from using it for takeoff and landing.

Future plans for the airport include lengthening the main runway, which among other things will allow larger aircraft to land. Moreover, the closure will have a “marginal” overall effect on the airport, Williams said. 

Still, the 4-3 vote—with council members Ari Parker, Jimmy Dutra and Casey Clark dissenting—was an unwelcome decision for many in the crowd of more than 50 people who packed the Council Chambers, most of them pilots and others who spoke against closing the runway.

Justin White, who owns K&D landscaping, said he recently received his pilot’s license and frequently flies to meetings. 

White acknowledged that the city needs to find space to develop housing and commercial space, but said he wants to see more investment in Watsonville Airport.

“The airport has been an asset to myself, to my business, to the community, and I think we should be investing into that community, not taking away from it,” he said. 

Malcom Jack, Chief Information Officer at Granite Construction, said the airport could one day be a tech hub for companies such as Joby Aviation to offer air taxi services.

He warned that taking away the runway could diminish the future potential of the airport.

“We’re on the precipice of self-flying  electric  automated aviation,” he said. “Is Watsonville going to be in a place to support that as it comes, or are you going to take those opportunities off the table for future generations?”

Pilot Ryan Ramirez, who serves as president of Watsonville Pilots Association, said that the crosswind runway was built to give pilots a safe option when the marine layer rolls in.

“When you’re coming in for a landing and you see that marine layer there, if the crosswind runway was not there. you’re landing into the marine layer, and if anything happens and you have to go around, or you can’t land, you’re basically flying into the clouds, and that’s instant death.”

That happened in 2011, he said, when a family of four was killed when their plane crashed into Watsonville Community Hospital. 

But the council seemed to agree with the handful of other speakers who urged the council to close the runway, thus nearly eliminating the airport safety zones that lie on either end and opening up more development potential in the Buena Vista and North Freedom areas.

According to Community Development Director Suzi Merriam, closing the runway will allow for anywhere from 2,745 to 3,534 new housing units to be built and from 80,000 to 540,000 square feet of commercial space.

Community Bridges spokesman and Pajaro Valley Health Care District Board President Tony Nuñez said that the city is on an upswing, with the Hospital set to be expanded and the levee system about to receive a major upgrade.

He said that the decision will still preserve the airport while balancing future housing needs.

“When you look at the future, if they move forward with deactivation, it’s going to open up potential for housing that this city desperately needs,” he said. 

Councilman Eduardo Montesino said his vote in favor of deactivation came because the city needs housing options for low-income residents.

“They deserve options for housing and commercial,” he said. “Currently they have none.”

Councilwoman Kristal Salcedo said she has seen instances of multiple families living in garages, which points to a need for more housing options. 

“It’s one of the only areas of land that we have to develop potentially multi-family attached homes, or any type of housing, and we have to give ourselves the opportunities,” she said.

Dutra said the decision will be irrevocable, and could limit future potential at the airport for businesses and for people who want to learn to fly.

“If we start closing down the airport, we are really going to take away an opportunity for the future here in this community,” he said. “This airport is an opportunity for everybody.”

Mayor Vanessa Quiroz-Carter said that the city is already landlocked in its development potential, using its infill and constrained by Measure Q, which restricts farmland from being used.

“To me this is an opportunity,” she said. “I am so tired of being in a scarcity mindset. I am so tired of getting the scraps of everything from the county. I am so tired of scrimping and saving and not investing. and to me this is an investment.”

The question of shortening the runway arose in 2018, when the Federal Aviation Administration told Airport Director Rayvon Williams that a row of hangars hinder the ability of pilots using the opposing runways to see each other.

Since the airport does not have a control tower to direct operations, the intersecting runways require visual line of sight for takeoffs and landings to ensure safety.

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  1. Totally disgusting decision. Wait till someone is killed due to closure of the runway. They’ll sue city of Watsonville for millions.

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  2. This decision is short sighted and focuses only on the practical applications of the airport. As someone who grew up in Watsonville, having an airport nearby served as source of fascination, and an inspiration, which allowed me to dream of a larger life outside of the city limits of Watsonville. I believe one of the council members reduced the argument in support of keeping the airport to a matter of class distinction, saying only wealthy people used the airport. This argument is reductive. Anyone can learn to fly. This airport is a jewel to not only our county, but the entire Bay. It would be more productive to find ways to draw more business to the airport. Productive efforts and thought, not reductive actions based on erroneous class distinctions that are founded in limited thinking.

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  3. Brilliant! Let’s put low income housing at the end of an active runway. Can you imagine living on the grounds of an airport the noise all day of planes taking off and landing. The exhaust of planes is unhealthy and of course, any engine failure on takeoffs or landing sends a plane into low income housing killing residents. Only Watsonville could come up with this brainstorm perfecto!
    Maybe living in a garage is not so bad compared to being the path of death every day and night!

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  4. Kristal Salcedo people living in garages will be a thing regardless if they build more housing. That’s how Mexicans operate to cut costs on living in this area. Building more homes or apartments aren’t going to change that. With the influx of border crossers it will only get worse but sure have at it and see the crime skyrocket. Thankfully I don’t have to endure that since my husband took us to a place that loves God, family and country.

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  5. It seems we forget too easily what the airport meant to the community after the Lomanto Prieta earthquake. The airport was, and still is, our lifeline if we are once again stranded with no highway/road access into or out of town.
    Good intentions do not always end well and I don’t believe this was the right call.

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  6. Watsonville has had folks living in garages forever… at least fifty years. No matter how much land is confiscated for housing. What a short sighted, small minded decision to turn beautiful Watsonville and its tiny attraction of an airport into slums and shopping. Sob. Boo. I thought we settled this years ago. The airport is a loved community asset and has been crucial during emergencies and as others have pointed out, we are on the cusp of flying cars. Joby aviation is about to take off literally and figuratively as Watsonville looks to the past.

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  7. Could someone please place this controversy on the ballot, so the public has a better say in this decision? Please, let’s save our airport and invest in its long term safety. There must be somewhere else for us to develop affordable housing. Please.

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