Council overrules county airport commission

City, county, and state at odds over land in Seal Beach

The City Council on Monday, August 29, overruled the county airport commission’s finding that the Seal Beach Housing Element is inconsistent with the airport area land use plan.

The vote was 4 to 1, with District Four Schelly Sustarsic dissenting.

The decision required a minimum of four votes to pass.

The same resolution adopted by the council also declared the city’s Housing Element to be consistent with the “Purposes of the State Aeronautics Act.”

Residents and Sustarsic have raised concerns about public safety and the city’s potential liability exposure if the city overruled the county airport commission.

The issues

Both the county Airport Land Use Commission and Caltrans were opposed to Seal Beach overruling the airport commission in recent letters to the city government.

The owners of the Old Ranch Country Club want to develop the land to include, among other things, overnight lodging, and senior housing.

The development proposal has not been approved by the city.

However, Seal Beach staff did include proposed residential units for the Old Ranch site as part of staff efforts to comply with a state-government mandate that Seal Beach plan for the construction of 1,243 units throughout the town. The city has listed more than that number of potential sites in the draft of the Housing Element. The California Department of Housing and Community Development [HDC] has not yet approved the city’s Housing Element.

Old Ranch is near the Joint Forces Training Base, which is how the county airport commission came into play. The airport commission raised about safety and noise.

Seal Beach staff recommended that the council overrule the airport commission, arguing that the county commission would claim authority to review Seal Beach land use decisions. According to the director of the city’s Community Development Department, that would be an issue for the state Housing and Community Development as that agency reportedly regards extra layers of review as impediments.

The discussion

Before votes were cast, Sustarsic tried to make the case for her dissenting vote. “The JFTB is our emergency disaster operation center. It houses both California National Guard and Army Reserves. It deals with both state and federal emergencies, such as earthquakes, riots, tsunamis, and Homeland Security. It serves all of us in case of disaster and we should care about it,” she said.

“There’s a reason that airports have open space around them. The risk of accident is greater on take-offs and landings,” she said.

“Traffic concerns: Lampson is already busy during peak dark times and it’s the only ingress and egress for CPE residents,” she said.

“In summary, much housing already surrounds the JFTB but this does not mean it’s okay to place it on the golf course. This area is not considered infill because the golf course is a different use recreation,” Sustarsic said.

She also said there was a development restriction that limits Old Ranch zoning for another seven years.

“Consideration or development should be discussed with the broader community. We should also consider lots of open space and recreation, such as the public driving range and what we’ve been promised,” she said.

District Three Councilman Mike Varipapa expressed sympathy for her arguments. “You know, I agree with you,” he said.

“But, you know, the point is that the housing at the point is that this is a mandate from Sacramento and we don’t have a lot of choices. We do not have choices for locations. So elimination isn’t an option. It just isn’t. It’s a terrible situation for all of us. Nobody wants this stuff. Every housing element proposal provides more noise and traffic and congestion and air pollution and all the other good stuff. And it just not an option. I’m sorry. Thank you,” he said.

District One Councilman/Mayor Joe Kalmick agreed with Varipapa. “And as Mike says this is not an issue of trying to inflict unnecessary or unfair consequences on any one of our districts. You simply have to look at the map or drive the street which is what I would love to have the person that is auditing our [Housing Element] application to HCD come to Seal Beach,” he said.

He said he wanted to drive that person through every street and alley in the city and have that person show him where they think additional housing can be built.

Kalmick said this wasn’t about approving or disapproving a development at Old Ranch.

“This is about achieving compliance with a state mandate. And there’s going to be plenty of discussion and plenty of time to discuss all of the issues that would be attendant to any development at Old Ranch.

During the public comment segment of the hearing, Stephanie Wade, a candidate. For the District Three council seat, supported the proposal to overrule the airport commission. “And I want to really commend [Community Development Director] Alexa [Smittle] and the staff, city staff and then all those who are on the planning commission for really trying to wrestle with the bear that is the state’s mandate. And I think this is absolutely essential that we move ahead with this,” Wade said.

College Park East resident and Planning Commissioner came out against overruling the airport commission. “first of all, the safety track record for that site is not very good,” Campbell said.

She referred to an article she sent the council about a 1966 airplane crash in the area.” Had those homes been there, he would’ve gone straight through the homes,” Campbell said.

“Now I also raise the issue of the JPIA, the Joint Powers Insurance Agency. You know if a city makes a bad decision, but in good faith, the agency will cover the city. But if a city makes a decision to knowingly willingly and intentionally override a safety recommendation from a county agency that is required to seek approval from and then there’s an ad related incident, will the agency still cover us insurance wise? This answer needs to be in writing from the JPIA itself. To my knowledge, no one has addressed that,” she said.

The report did not mention the Joint Powers Insurance Authority.

However, Smittle told the council: “So the city has immunity in a couple of different ways. So the Government Code provides us some immunity for failing to adopt or adopting any kind of an act enactment or a law and then we also have immunity under the issuance or denial of a building permit.”

Campbell suggested removing the proposed senior housing units for the Old Ranch property from the draft of the city Housing Element. She argued that the staff had a buffer, preferring to 1500 potential housing sites identified in the Housing Element.

“Now all the response letters that you guys received, were all from College Park East and requested the elimination of the senior housing sites. There were no other sites that were requested to be removed just as the 870 housing sites with a double decking of the shops it was for the Target Center as recommended by Caltrans, aeronautics and the Department of Transportation,” Campbell said.

Campbell asked the council why they were stuck on the proposed senior housing units at Old ranch.

Community Development Director Alexa Smittle spelled out staff’s case for overruling the airport commission before and during the hearing. According to Smittle, if the City Council did not overrule the Orange County Airport Land Use Commission could require the city to submit land-use decisions to the airport commission for review. According to Smittle, this could be an issue with the state of California housing department because reportedly the HCD sees additional review as an impediment to housing and that could complicate getting the Housing Element approved.

Referring to the “buffer” of potential residences in the Housing Element, she told District Two Councilman Thomas Moore, “The more we give them, the better.”

Smittle said the California Department of Housing and Community Development wants the buffer.

Asked about legal challenges to the mandated number of housing units cities must plan for, Smittle predicted the lawsuits would not succeed.

“In fact, it could potentially get worse. There are bills right now that, you know, essentially rezone us without us. Rezoning that would allow for housing development in, you know, areas that are not zoned for housing or industrial sites and office sites and so forth. But the state is barreling down this path of housing everywhere,” Smittle said.


According to the Aug. 29 staff report by Community Development Director Alexa Smittle, the area near the country club is already developed with residential housing.

“The Cities of Newport Beach, Irvine, and Costa Mesa recently overruled the ALUC related to John Wayne Airport, after the ALUC also issued findings of inconsistency with their respective housing elements. An action overruling the ALUC inconsistency determination would allow the City to move closer to Housing Element certification from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD),” Smittle wrote.

The city had two other options, according to the staff report.

Seal Beach could do nothing. According to Smittle, the county commission would “likely” claim authority to review Seal Beach land use decisions and permits.

Or the city could revise the Housing Element. “The Housing Element is a policy document that identifies opportunities for housing in compliance with State law. It does not approve any development projects. Moreover, if the City were to eliminate all housing opportunity sites that are discussed in the response letters, the City would have to find new locations for 870 of the 1,243 required RHNA units,” Smittle wrote.

The response letters were from Caltrans and the airport commission in opposition to the proposal to overrule the Orange County Airport Land Use Commission.

“In drafting the Housing Element, the City worked very diligently to identify the housing opportunity sites contained in the Housing Element, including consultation with the adopted AELUP [Airport Environs Land Use Plan], which was drafted specifically by the ALUC [Airport Land Use Commission] for the purpose of creating compatibility between the JFTB and surrounding uses,” Smittle wrote.

“The response letter from ALUC acknowledges that none of the housing opportunity sites are located within the APZs [accident potential zones] or Czs [clear zones], but states that the ALUC finding of inconsistency is based upon a broader definition of safety,” Smittle wrote.

Another issue that has been raised is whether Seal Beach has liability exposure if the city overrules the airport commission.

“The discussion of liability is a complex one, particularly in this case, where the airport is operated by the military, specifically the U.S. Army. Generally speaking, the U.S. Government is already exempt from liability for accidents resulting from miliary activities. The PUC does not provide immunity to any other entities, including other aircraft operators. Further, the Government Code grants immunity to jurisdictions from liability related to issuing a permit. Ultimately, developers assume liability for their projects,” Smittle wrote.

“The City of Seal Beach fought for a Development Agreement which prohibits future development on the sites until 2029,” wrote Lorraine Navarro in an Aug. 7 email that opposed overruling the airport commission. (Several emails were attached to the staff report and are public record.)