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Watsonville
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September 23, 2021

Lawsuit against city, airport advances

WATSONVILLE—A lawsuit against the city of Watsonville and the municipal airport will move forward after a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge on Thursday denied a motion to dismiss it.

The plaintiff in the case is United Flight Services (UFS), which sued the city in 2019 after Airport Manager Rayvon Williams blocked their access to one of the ramps that leads to the runway from the business.

Owner Terry McKenna says that Williams gave no warning before placing several barricades across the ramp, which he says the business had been using since its inception in 1966.

United Flight Services provides flight lessons, in addition to providing a full range of airplane repair and inspection services. McKenna says the barricades have left the business with just one access point to the runway, and prevents about 50 uses per week. This has affected customer access, employee parking and maintenance services, in addition to deliveries, McKenna says. He was also planning on using the closed area for airplane parking. 

All of this has meant a loss of about $150,000 per week, he says.

Worse, the ramp that is available is busy with other air traffic, including helicopters from a nearby business, says office manager Deni Phinney.

“It’s a huge bottleneck,” she said. “It’s a huge impact on our business, and it’s limiting our ability to take care of our customers.”

The court filing states that the loss has led to actionable fines of more than $3.1 million, and McKenna says he has spent more than $100,000 in attorney fees. But McKenna says he is mainly hoping for the ramp to be reopened.

Williams has not responded to several requests for comment. 

Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker says the closure stems from 2019, when airport staff saw UFS customers and employees driving through the ramp instead of using Aviation Way, which he says created a safety issue.

Huffaker says the city has offered to pay for alternative access points, which UFS has rejected. Huffaker declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

Attorney Glynn Falconer, who is representing UFS, says that there have been no accidents in relation to the ramp since 1965, and points out that the company has a $3 million liability insurance policy. He also says it is UFS, not the city, that would be responsible for an accident.

In addition, Falconer says that a rule banning ground vehicles in the area did not exist until Williams created it,18 days after he placed the barricades. 

Falconer also points out that, while Federal Aviation Administration guidelines state that traffic should be limited on transient ramps, there are no specific federal rules that would prohibit UFS’s access or justify the barricades.

McKenna says that he recently spent more than $900,000 on a new facility, about $600,000 which he provided via a personal loan. The business held a grand opening in 2019. 

In addition, McKenna recently approved a 20-year lease agreement that did not mention any issues with access to the ramp. If it had, McKenna says he would not have signed the lease.

If the city prevails in the lawsuit—scheduled to be heard on April 10—and he loses access to the ramp, McKenna will consider moving his business to Monterey Airport, where he says officials have extended an “open arms encouragement” invitation.

That would be a problem for pilots, says Watsonville Pilots Association treasurer Jeremy Lezin, who has flown at the airport since 1981.

“UFS has been a mainstay at the airport as long as I can remember,” Lezin said. “He is the primary mechanic on the field, he is kind of the go-to person we all go to for mechanical work, to repair our airplanes and maintain our airplanes.”

UFS also performs annual inspections for pilots, in addition to performing condition inspections and engine overhauls, Lezin says.

The loss of UFS could also be a problem for Belardi Aircraft Upholstery and NorCal Avionics, businesses that sublease space from UFS.

David French, who owns NorCal Avionics, says he was planning to use the closed-off space to perform required biennial inspections on airplane electronics. He says that 90 percent of his business comes from UFS.

“If they moved to Monterey it would be devastating for me,” he said. 

McKenna says he prefers to work out the problem with the barricades amicably and stay at the airport.

“This is the airport where I met my wife,” he said. “This is where I cut my teeth as a pilot. I have a lot of ties to this area.”

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