In The News

Legal threat halts county airport plan

EIR ordered on proposed growth limits.

September 12, 2000

By STEVE HART Press Democrat Staff Writer

Facing a threat of lawsuits from neighboring property owners, a Sonoma County commission on Monday balked at a plan to limit urban growth around six county airports.

Instead, the Airport Land Use Commission will prepare an environmental impact report on the plan, which will delay any action for at least a year.

The plan would have curtailed development of new homes and businesses in "safety zones" up to three miles away from the airports, where aircraft are taking off, turning and landing.

It was intended to protect people on the ground from aircraft noise and possible accidents, according to county officials.

It's also supposed to prevent encroaching development from restricting airport operations or forcing airports to close altogether.

The plan came under heavy fire last year from property owners around the airports who said Sonoma County underestimated the impacts. They've threatened to sue to stop the plan, saying it would take away their development rights.

On Monday, commissioners voted without comment to delay further action until there's a full environmental impact report. But it was clear they were concerned about the threat of litigation.

Before voting, the commissioners huddled in a closed-door session with county attorneys for almost two hours to discuss the potential for lawsuits.

After the vote, commission Vice Chairman Sam Salmon said the panel wants to ensure "there's substantial evidence to support our plan."

Salmon said more environmental study will strengthen the plan and make it easier to defend.

The Airport Land Use Commission includes representatives from cities, the county Board of Supervisors and the airports.

The plan affects several thousand acres around the six county airports: Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County, Petaluma, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Skypark.

Sonoma County has had airport land-use regulations since 1981, but those rules are outdated, according to the county. The new regulations are based on current flight patterns and new airport guidelines from the state that are more restrictive than the old rules.

The new policy would have the greatest effect on Windsor, which is under the flight pattern for Sonoma County Airport.

According to a county analysis, the regulations could prevent Windsor from building hundreds of homes in the southwestern part of town.

It also would block plans for a hotel and other commercial development in Windsor.

A county report said projects around the Petaluma, Cloverdale and Sonoma Valley airports and Sonoma Skypark also could be affected. As a result of the new regulations, Windsor and other communities would be required to change their growth plans.

"I can see where it's a good measure in the sense where you have an overall plan where the people can participate in the future of their community," Warnecke said. "It's too bad they (the farmers) can't look at it from a little broader, long-range view."

Windsor also objected to the proposed plan, saying it needs more study.

Sonoma County's Airport Business Center was one of the property owners threatening legal action to block the plan. Les Perry, an attorney for the business park, said it would have far-reaching impacts on jobs and housing around the Sonoma County Airport.

Earlier, she spoke with the farmers outside and came away saying they have a deep misunderstanding of the proposed initiative.

He said the effects should be evaluated in an environmental report.

As a result of the initial protests, the county did some additional analysis, which concluded most of the projects displaced by the regulations could be built elsewhere, resulting in little net loss of housing or commercial development.

The county's planning staff said the plan didn't need an environmental impact report because the proposal's effects were insignificant.