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Air Base Compatibility Plan Upheld Over Developer's Objection

An appellate court has upheld an airport land use compatibility plan that a Solano County landowner argued was overly restrictive.

The court rejected the landowner's contention that Solano County's Travis Air Force Base Land Use Compatibility Plan (TALUP) was inconsistent with an Air Force plan because the TALUP used a tighter noise threshold and assumed greater airport use than did the Air Force. The court found nothing in state law that prevented the country from being more restrictive of growth around an airport.

The decision is the latest in litigation filed by Muzzy Ranch Company, which owns about 5,000 acres in unincorporated Solano County. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that the TALUP qualified for a "common sense" exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act because the plan, by freezing existing zoning, had no potential for causing significant environmental impacts (Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Com., (2007) 41 Cal. 372; see CP&DR Legal Digest, July 2007).

After the state Supreme Court's decision, the case made its way back to the First District Court of Appeal, Division Five, for further proceedings. Having lost its CEQA arguments, Muzzy Ranch this time argued that the TALUP adopted in 2002 was invalid because it did not mimic a 1995 Air Force Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ) study. The Air Force document used a 65 decibel community noise equivalent level as a threshold, while the TALUP employed a 60 dB CNEL threshold. In addition, Solano County's Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) developed its own "maximum mission" scenario for Travis that far exceeded anything spelled out by the Air Force.

The idea behind both the county's plan and the Air Force's study was minimization of incompatible new development around the base. But the different standards were critical because the 60 dB noise contour combined with county expectations of increased low-level flights placed more than 600 square miles into a zone in which the plan called for freezing existing land use designations. That meant huge swaths of agricultural land could not be developed unless four-fifths of the Board of Supervisors was willing to override the TALUP and find that development would be compatible with the airport. Simply shifting to the 65 dB contour would shrink this zone dramatically.

Muzzy Ranch argued that a requirement in the State Aeronautics Act  (specifically, Public Utilities Code § 21675, subdivision (b)) required the county to adopt or incorporate the provisions of the Air Force study. But the court found that state law only required the county plan to be "compatible with" the Air Force document.

The court relied heavily on SB 1468, a 2002 measure that requires general plan and airport land use compatibility plans to consider the impact of urban development on the military. That legislation, the court noted, "was a response to base closures after nearby development interfered with base operations."

"Viewing the statutory scheme as a whole," Justice Lawrence Stevens wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel, "we conclude that ‘consistent with' means that the land use plan must be compatible with the applicable AICUZ. Because the purpose of the Senate Bill 1468 was to protect the operations of military installations from encroachment by development, compatibility in this context means that the land use plan must be at least as protective of airport operations as the applicable AICUZ, but it need not literally adopt the safety and noise standards of the AICUZ.

"Critically," Stevens continued, "there is no reason to think that the Legislature intended to prohibit ALUCs from adopting land use plans that prohibit more development that would be prohibited using the AICUZ safety and noise standards."

Muzzy Ranch argued that the Solano County commission's use of the 60 dB standard and its own "maximum mission" scenario was unjustified. In rejecting the argument, the court cited Caltrans' "California Airport Land Use Planning Handbook," which states, "For the purpose of airport land use compatibility planning, the department's advice is that CNEL 65 dB is not an appropriate criterion for new noise-sensitive development around most airports." And the handbook advises ALUCs to base planning on a multiplier of the military's maximum mission for the base because the military forecasts "are not very meaningful."

The Case:
Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano County Airport Land Use Commission, No. A104955, 08 C.D.O.S. 7642, 2008 DJDAR 9173. Filed June 18, 2008.
The Lawyers:
For Muzzy Ranch: Richard C. Jacobs, Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, (415) 434-1600.
For the county: James Laughlin, county counsel's office, (707) 784-6140.
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