By William W. Abbott

The facts in Watsonville Pilots Association v. City of Watsonville (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 1059 involve the City of Watsonville and its airport, located on the edge of the City. The airport’s main runway accounted for a majority (82%) of airport operations, and its crosswind runway, accounted for the balance. In 2005, the City amended its airport master plan (“WAMP”), redesignating downward the crosswind, and modifying or eliminating existing land use restrictions. In October 2005, the City circulated a DEIR for its new general plan, and later in May 2006, certified the EIR, adopted a statement of overriding considerations, and adopted the new 2030 General Plan. The new general plan called for significant new growth around the airport, in an area called Buena Vista. As part of the 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.

Friends of Buena Vista, the Sierra Club and an association of pilots sued to overturn the general plan approval. At trial, the superior court held the general plan was inconsistent with the State Aeronautics Act (“SAA”), and the EIR inadequately analyzed impacts on aviation and traffic and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives. The City appealed on the issues of aviation and alternatives (but not traffic), and the opponents filed their own appeal challenging the superior court’s determination that the analysis of groundwater impacts was sufficient.

A significant portion of the appellate court’s decision is devoted to the extent to which the City of Watsonville is subject of all of the SAA (and in particular, Public Resources Code section 21670.1). Not all cities and airports are treated equally under the SAA. Watsonville is located in a county which is not required to have an Airport Land Use Commission (“ALUC”), and consequently the duties for safety planning for land uses surrounding airports falls directly to the City. The legal question at issue was which provisions of the Division of Aeronautics Handbook apply to a jurisdiction like Watsonville? Key to this case, the appellate court concluded that the Handbook safety and density criteria applied to Watsonville and similar jurisdictions. Although the redesignating of the crosswind runway had transpired before the general plan was adopted, the appellate court reexamined that analysis in the context of the general plan update. Apparently, finality of local government action is in the eye of the beholder.

Turning to the CEQA issues, the appellate court held that the EIR was inadequate for failure to assess impacts resulting from planning deviations from the SAA Handbook, a requirement of CEQA Guidelines section 15154(a). While the City’s EIR relied heavily upon the WAMP, that document in turn had contemplated that later planning for the Buena Vista area would address the land use compatibility and noise issues.

With respect to alternatives, the City’s EIR included three:  Alternative 1, same level of development but within the City boundaries; Alternative 2, same level of development but one half of new growth would be in new growth areas; and Alternative 3, the no-project alternative. Alternative 1 would reduce impacts to farmland to less than significant; alternative 3 would reduce impacts of population growth to less than significant, and all three would reduce impacts to groundwater supply. From the perspective of the appellate court, there was a more suitable alternative which should have been studied, a reduced development alternative. As most impacts were growth related, a court indicated that there should have been an alternative which responded to the 10 of 12 stated objectives. As 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 to the studied alternatives), it should have been included.

The opponents appealed the trial court ruling on the sufficiency of the water supply analysis, but 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. It also provided documentation as to relative water use of agriculture versus development and anticipated water conservation measures, and 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.

Commentary: This case essentially invites a reviewing court to substitute its thinking for that of local officials and staff, by analyzing what would be a better range of alternatives, not whether or not the alternatives studied provide a reasoned choice. This decision goes in the wrong direction.

William W. Abbott is a partner at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.