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Watsonville City Council Approves Development as Possible Litigation Looms

The Watsonville City Council approved a proposed 21-condo development across the street from the Watsonville Municipal Airport that could face litigation from the Watsonville Pilot Association

PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

The Watsonville City Council approved a proposed 21-condo development across the street from the Watsonville Municipal Airport that could face litigation from the Watsonville Pilots Association (WPA).

The project would redevelop a steel fabrication business at 547 Airport Blvd. that has stood for at least 24 years, according to owners Raoul and Eve Ortiz, into contemporary housing. It would include three homes subject to the city’s affordable housing requirements.

But WPA representatives—both at Tuesday’s meeting and in letters to city leadership—say that the city has no legal standing to approve projects so close to the airport without environmental and airport-related impact reports.

In addition, WPA says, the city cannot build within the airport safety zone because it has not yet complied with the State Aeronautics Act or the mandates of recent Santa Cruz County Superior Court decisions and the 2010 Court of Appeals mandate to incorporate the California Division of Aeronautic and Airport Land Use Planning Handbook into its general plan.

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra was the lone “no” vote on the project—councilman Aurelio Gonzalez was on a leave of absence. He said he worried the Ortiz family was getting into an overwhelming legal battle against the deep-pocketed WPA, which has several times successfully challenged the city—including litigation against the city’s 2030 general plan.

“Home Depot, Target, the housing development behind Target, these are developers that have really deep pockets that probably were able to match the pilots dollar for dollar,” Dutra said. “I don’t know if you know what you’re getting yourself into at this moment.”

The Watsonville Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve the project earlier this year, but the vote failed because it needed a supermajority of five votes. Their concerns stemmed from the project’s one-way-in, one-way-out entrance, limited parking spaces (58, including 16 visitor spots) and potentially toxic soil left from the previous industrial use.

Those concerns arose again on Tuesday—and members of the public worried that the homes would be out of the price range of Watsonville residents—but took a backseat to the possible litigation.

Although the city has not yet updated its general plan with the needed handbooks, city staff said that the project does indeed meet the requirements in those documents. But, city attorney Alan Smith explained, the pilots contend that the court decision against the city’s 2030 general plan is retroactive and that if the city continues to operate under the 2005 general plan, that it must be updated with the handbook requirements before the city can approve any construction around the airport.

Although city staff said the project met the requirements, Smith said “That’s what the courts are for—people have differences of opinion.”

Council Solidifies Public Nuisance 

In other action, the council also solidified its declaration that the stalled housing development at 1773 Santa Victoria Ave. is a public nuisance and that if the developers do not agree with the city’s requirements by the end of the month, city staff will ask the elected officials in September to OK the demolition of at least 26 units currently in various stages of construction.

The city is requiring the developer, Pacific Sunshine Development, LLC, to sign contracts that will either guarantee it will follow through on the construction of the 87-unit development, or give the city financial insurance in the case that it does not. Staff says that the recent public nuisance declaration has helped the project move forward after being stalled for more than three years.

The development off Ohlone Parkway broke ground in 2016, and it was supposed to be completed by 2018.

The council voted unanimously on the item.

Fire in the Sky Moves Forward

Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker said the Fire In the Sky and airport open house event set for Sept. 4 is still on despite the rising number of county residents coming down with Covid-19.

People will be required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Huffaker also said the city will host a Covid-19 vaccine clinic at the event, which usually happens on the Fourth of July.

“This event, as with any planning we’re doing in a pandemic, is subject to change if we see major shifts in case counts,” Huffaker said, “but for now the guidance that we’re receiving from county health is these outdoor events can be held safely with the proper protocols. And we know how important these (events) are to the social and emotional health of our community members.”

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