AVIATION NOISE LAW
Airport Land Use Commissions in California
Airport Land Use Commissions in California
[Updated January 24, 2012]
In the 1960s the California legislature created a system of county commissions to regulate land planning in the vicinity of airports. Public Utilities Code sections 21670 - 21679.5 contain the statutes creating the Airport Land Use Commissions.
Each county in California that includes an airport served by a scheduled airline or operated for the benefit of the general public must establish an airport land use commission. (California Public Utilities Code section 21670). The state legislature's purpose in requiring these commissions was to "protect public health, safety, and welfare by ensuring the orderly expansion of airports and the adoption of land use measures that minimize the public's exposure to the extent that these areas are not already devoted to incompatible uses."
The commission's chief business is to prepare and enforce a land use plan for the area surrounding each airport in its jurisdiction.
To get information on the airport land use commission in your county, contact the county secretary of boards and commissions. Ask for a roster of commission members (with dates of appointments). Also ask who is designated to serve as staff for the commission (typically this is someone in the planning or public works department). This person should have a copy of airport land use plans adopted by the commission.
The following information summarizes the statutory requirements for the commission as they apply to a typical county (Alameda County). Other counties may be differently affected by statutory provisions.
Appointment of Commission
The commission in every county is appointed as follows (there are some exceptions where airports straddle county boundaries):
2 representing the county, appointed by board of supervisors.
2 representing cities in the county, appointed by a committee of all mayors, except that at least one representative must be appointed from among "any cities contiguous or adjacent to the qualifying airport" (i.e., an airport served by a scheduled airline or one operated for the benefit of the general public).
2 with expertise in aviation, appointed by a committee of the managers of all public airports within the county.
1 representing the general public, appointed by the other six members of the commission.
Proxies: Each member of the commission shall appoint a single proxy to represent him and to vote when the member is absent. Proxies serves at the pleasure of the appointing member of the commission. Proxy must be in writing and filed at the commission office.
Term of office: Four years. Any member can be removed at any time and without cause by the appointing body. (Cal. Publ. Util. Code s. 21671.5(a))
Conflict of Interest
The commission must adopt rules for temporary disqualification of its members from participating in review or adoption of a proposal because of a conflict of interest and appointment of a substitute member. (Cal. Publ. Util. Code s. 21672)
Meetings, Quorum, Action
The commission meets at the call of the chairperson or at the request of a majority of commission members. A majority of members is a quorum for the transaction of business. No action can be taken except by recorded vote of a majority of the full membership. (Cal. Publ. Util Code s. 21671.5(e))
Powers and Duties
Public Utilities Code section 21674:
"(a) To assist local agencies in ensuring compatible land uses in the vicinity of all new airports and in the vicinity of existing airports to the extent that the land in the vicinity of those airports is not already devoted to incompatible uses.
"(b) To coordinate planning at the state, regional, and local levels so as to provide for the orderly development of air transportation, while at the same time protecting the public health, safety, and welfare.
"(c) To prepare and adopt an airport land use plan pursuant to section 21675.
[Section 21675(a): "The commission plan shall include and shall be based on a long-range master plan or an airport layout plan, as determined by the Division of Aeronautics of the Department of Transportation, that reflects the anticipated growth of the airport during at least the next 20 years." The plan must be guided by the Airport Land Use Planning Handbook published by the Division of Aeronautics, Department of Transportation. (s. 21674.7).]
"(d) To review the plans, regulations, and other actions of local agencies and airport operators pursuant to section 21676.
[Section 21676 provides that local agencies whose general plan includes areas covered by an ALUC plan must submit its general plan, or any specific plans, zoning ordinances, or building regulations that affect the area covered by the ALUC plan, to the commission. See "Relations with Local Planning Agencies" below.]
"(e) The powers of the commission shall in no way be construed to give the commission jurisdiction over the operation of any airport.
"(f) In order to carry out its responsibilities, the commission may adopt rules and regulations consistent with this article."
The vicinity of an airport can include land in another county; however, according to an opinion of the state attorney general, a commission's jurisdiction does not extend beyond its own county. (See AG opinion 90-914.)
Relations with Local Planning Agencies
The most important, and controversial, task of the ALUC is to review the land-use plans and zoning ordinances of cities and other local agencies (such as school districts) that affect the area within an airport planning boundary established by the ALUC. Section 21676 provides that local agencies whose general plan includes areas covered by an ALUC plan must submit a copy of its plan or specific plans to the commission. Before amending a general or specific plan or adopting a zoning ordinance that overlaps with the commission's plan boundaries, the local agency must first refer the proposed action to the commission. According to an opinion of the state attorney general, an ALUC may not exempt a specific plan adopted by a city or county from review by ALUC. (See AG opinion 03-805.)
In addition, any public agency owning an airport within the commission's plan boundaries must submit to the commission any proposed modification of its airport master plan.
If the commission determines that any of the preceding proposed actions are inconsistent with the ALUC plan, the local agency may, after a public hearing, overrule the commission by a two-thirds vote of its governing body if it makes specific findings that the proposed action is consistent with the purposes stated in Public Utilities Code section 21670. Thereafter the proposed action is not subject to review by the commission. (The question of what constitutes "specific findings" was the subject of a Court of Appeal decision in California Aviation Council v. City of Ceres (1992), in which the findings supporting a city's decision to overrule the local ALUC were challenged by local pilots.)
In 2003 the legislature limited the ability of local agencies to overrule the ALUC (AB 332). A local agency that proposes to overrule the ALUC must first provide the ALUC and the State Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics, with the proposed decision at least 45 days prior to the decision. Any comments by the ALUC or Division of Aeronautics must be included in the final record of the local agency's final decision to overrule the ALUC.
Cases Concerning ALUCs
Butte County ALUC:California Pilots Association v. County of Butte The Butte County Airport Land Use Commission determined that proposed construction of several homes near the Chico Municipal Airport was inconsistent with the commission's plan for orderly coexistence of airports and surrounding areas. The county board of supervisors overruled the commission. Plaintiff challenged the county's approval of the development, alleging that the county abused its discretion in overruling the commission. Held: the county's decision was supported by substantial evidence and thus consistent with the law. (Butte Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. 122720, 1999; decided 2003; affirmed 3d Dist. Ct. Appeal, April 14, 2003)
Merced County ALUC: California Pilots Association sued City of Los Banos over city's approval of a housing project within the safety zone of a Los Banos Airport runway. (Merced Co. Sup. Ct., filed 2001)
Napa County ALUC:PAH/Stanley Ranch v. County of Napa The Napa County Airport Land Use Commission determined that a housing development plan was inconsistent with the commission's airport land use plan. The developer challenged the commission's decision. Held: the commission's decision was supported by substantial evidence and procedural due process was not violated in arriving at the decision. (Napa Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. 26-04804, 1999)
Nevada County ALUC:City of Grass Valley v. Nevada County ALUC The ALUC approved an Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan for the Nevada County Airport after certifying a "negative declaration" to satisfy the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In this suit the city and several private developers challenged the adequacy of a negative declaration under the circumstances as well as due process concerning adoption of the ALUC plan. The ALUC plan would effectively prevent development of housing, parks, and shops on 452 acres that the city had been planning for several years, and which the city approved shortly before the ALUC plan was approved. (Nevada Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. 77990, filed Oct. 20, 2011).
Orange County ALUC: The county sued the City of Irvine over the city's attempts to rezone the portion of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station within its corporate boundaries. The court required the city to analyze the consistency of its project with both the ALUC's land use compatibility plan for the area surrounding the air base, even though the Department of Defense had closed the base, and a reasonably foreseeable future land use compatibility plan for a civilian airport at the site. (Orange Co. Sup. Ct., decided 1997)
Orange County ALUC: Suits (consolidated) filed by cities of Irvine and Lake Forest against the ALUC challenging the ALUC's authority to continue to enforce its land use compatibility plan for the decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The cities sought to permit private development adjacent to the closed airport. The court upheld the validity of the ALUC's plan despite the closure of the airport. (Orange Co. Superior Ct., filed Nov. 1999; decided 2001)
Orange County ALUC:County of Orange v. City of Laguna Wood The county sued after the city approved a project that the ALUC had determined was inconsistent with its land use compatibility plan for El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The air base had been closed at the time of the ALUC's determination. The county's petition for writ of mandate was denied. (Orange Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. 01CC07878, filed June 18, 2001; transferred to San Diego Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. GIC781205; decided Nov. 21, 2002)
Riverside County ALUC: City of Coachella v. Riverside County ALUC The city sought a court order nullifying the commission's land use compatability plan for the area surrounding Thermal Airport after the commission determined that certain subdivisions being processed by the city were inconsistent with plan. The appellate court upheld the trial court's issuance of a writ nullifying the plan and ordering the ALUC to draw up a new plan. The decision hinged on the court's interpretation of the statutes requiring local ALUCs to prepare land use compatibility plans. (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 4th Dist., 1989, 210 Cal.App.3d 1277)
Riverside County ALUC: Silverhawk Land & Acquisitions, LLC v. Riverside County ALUC Developers challenged the ALUC's land use compatibility plan for French Valley Airport. The court ordered that an environmental impact report on the plan be prepared. (Riverside Co. Sup. Ct., Case No. RIC 431176, filed June 2, 2005)
Santa Cruz County: Watsonville Pilots Association et al. v. City of Watsonville The county does not have an ALUC. The issue in this case was whether, in the absence of an ALUC, the city has discretion to implement certain runway safety zone standards outlined in the "Airport Land Use Planning Handbook" issued by the state's Division of Aeronautics. The court ruled it does not. (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 6th District, March 15, 2010, unpublished opinion)
Solano County ALUC:Muzzy Ranch Co. v. Solano Co. Airport Land Use Comm'n Adoption of an airport land use compatibility plan for the area surrounding an airport was a "project" as that term is used in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and thus the plan is subject to CEQA. The California Supreme Court affirmed this holding but determined that the particular land use plan adopted by the Solano County commission was exempt from the requirement of an environmental analysis. (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 1st Dist., 2005, 125 Cal.App.4th 810; Cal. Supreme Ct., June 21, 2007, 41 Cal.4th 372)
Sonoma County ALUC Developers Larry Wassem and Richard Combs, who wanted to build a hotel near the Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, challenging the ALUC's newly adopted land use compatibility plan for the area around the airport. The plan would have disallowed the hotel. The suit was settled, allowing the developer to build the hotel but keeping the land use plan intact. See Developer Drops Lawsuit over Airport Land-Use Compatibility Plan. (Sonoma Co. Superior Ct., filed between January and April 2001)
Stanislaus County ALUC:California Aviation Council v. City of Ceres City Council's failure to make specific findings in approving a project that was not consistent with the ALUC's land use compatibility plan was an abuse of discretion. (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 5th Dist., 1992, 9 Cal.App.4th 1384)
Tulare County ALUC:California Pilots Association v. City of Tulare The city planning commission approved a permit to build a truck terminal within a Tulare Airport runway safety zone established by the ALUC. City is exempt from ALUC policy under a waiver obtained years ago. The suit demanded that City operate under ALUC policy and its land use plan for the airport. The suit was dismissed for lack of standing for failure to exhaust administrative remedies (petitioner had not participated in the city hearings). However, the court ruled that City needs to work with the ALUC to properly exercise the waiver that exempts City from ALUC policy. (Tulare Co. Superior Ct., filed 2004; decided Nov. 2005)
Attorney General Opinions
AG Opinion 72-203 (July 5, 1972) -- An ALUC does not have authority to formulate a comprehensive land use plan for the area surrounding a federal military airport. (Published 55 Ops.Atty.Gen. 284.)
AG opinion 74-126 (Nov. 15, 1974) -- An ALUC's planning authority extends to the areas surrounding airports operated for the benefit of the public, whether such airports are publicly or privately owned. (Published 57 Ops.Atty.Gen. 567.)
AG opinion 88-307 (July 6, 1988) -- An ALUC has a reasonable period of time to adopt an airport land use plan. What constitutes a reasonable period depends on relevant circumstances. (Published 71 Ops.Atty.Gen. 213.)
AG opinion 90-914 (May 7, 1991) -- The jurisdiction of a county airport land use commission is limited by county boundaries. (Published 74 Ops.Atty.Gen. 58.)
AG opinion 91-502 (1992) -- A two-thirds vote of members of a city council constituting a quorum, not two-thirds of the entire membership of the council, is sufficient to override a determination of the ALUC. (Published 75 Ops.Atty.Gen. 47.)
AG opinion 03-805 (July 22, 2004) -- An airport land use commission may not exempt a specific plan adopted by a city or county from compliance with the commissionís more stringent compatibility standards for land use, development density, and development intensity in the vicinity of a public use airport.