Grappling with Growth

Expansion of Watsonville sparks new and long-standing issues

Watsonville City Councilmember Daniel Dodge may have opened a can of worms with a recent editorial published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Jan. 29. 

His piece proposed that the City of Watsonville annex a property known as Sakata-Kett for large retail development and mentioned Costco as a possible tenant.  He says this would help create jobs outside of the agricultural industry for a city whose unemployment rate has hovered around 25 percent since 2008.

“Farm workers don’t want their kids to grow up to be farm workers,” Dodge says.

A study session on the proposal at the Watsonville city council’s Feb. 14 meeting brought a slew of responses ranging from suspicion to opposition. The tone hinted at simmering mistrust of local government and history of racial division in the city that dates back to the ‘80s.

Between 1971 and 1985, nine Latino candidates ran for city council seats, but were all defeated in at-large elections, despite Watsonville’s 36 percent Latino population at that time.

This spurred a lawsuit called Gomez v. City of Watsonville in which the United States Supreme Court decided in 1988 that at-large elections discriminated against Latinos. The court imposed a district-by-district election system described in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1989 Oscar Rios won the seat representing district one and became the city’s first Latino mayor. Latinos felt that previous councils stifled development for retail and manufacturing jobs to preserve farm land mostly owned by white residents, says Luis Alejo, a former Watsonville mayor and current California assemblymember for the 28th District.

“In the ’80s [Latinos] felt they were not being represented by the council,” Alejo says. “Now they are on the city council and in every department of the local government.”

The Latino population went on to grow to 42 percent and the city’s borders stretched to build housing, businesses and schools. Action Pajaro Valley—a coalition of business, environmental and citizen activists—formed in 1998 to develop growth strategies that balanced these priorities while retaining the area’s agricultural land. Measure U was passed by 60 percent of voters in 2003, setting urban limits through 2030 and allowing annexations during that time if voters approve them.

“Trust was built through this process,” says APV Executive Director Lisa Dobbins. “Trust was not good in the ‘80s, and some people felt that the whole district election talk was too race based. White Watsonville was starting to flee, and the new elections were changing how the city was being represented.”

The demographics and priorities of the city council also transformed as the face of the city council became more diverse. The population grew from 31,199 in 1990 to 51,099 today, and is comprised of 83 percent Latino residents. Today, Latinos hold four of seven council seats. Also of note, nearly 50 percent of the city’s population is under the age of 25. Dodge says it is his responsibility as an elected official to create a future with decent jobs and houses for when these young residents start families of their own.

“I don’t want to come off as angry—rather I am hopeful,” he says. “But with how young the town is, and how high unemployment is, I’m concerned.”

He says the Sakata-Kett property is prime for a shopping center with a large anchor store because of its proximity to highly-used Highway 1. Costco was mentioned because they had talked with city officials in recent years, but no location in the city limits was suitable. They said they needed a 15-acre plot to house the store and parking lot, according to Watsonville Economic Development Director Kurt Overmeyer.

“Of 6.5 million square feet of industrial [zoned] space, less than 1 percent is undeveloped,” says Overmeyer. “We literally don’t have any space to provide developers with to build retail and fill the gap between farm work and [future job opportunities].”

The annexation of the Sakata-Kett site represents more than a building proposal to Dobbins. She says it breaks the agreement they reached under Measure U, and asks why the Manabe-Ow property—which is already in city hands—is being overlooked for a retail project.

“There are people in our group who are against a lot of sprawling but have a strong urban conscience,” Dobbins says. “How do we provide housing and good jobs for workers, and juggle conservation of land so we don’t go out willy-nilly on to agricultural land?”

Manabe-Ow and Sakata-Kett were originally proposed to be annexed together, but after years of talks between businesses, environmentalists and government, the latter was dropped from the concept. Dodge wants to resume talks on Sakata-Kett because there are several obstacles to development on Manabe-Ow (a building condemned after the Loma Prieta Earthquake sits on the site, which has to be demolished before anything new can move in).

Gov. Jerry Brown’s abolition of redevelopment agencies in 2011 strips the funds that would have helped prepare the site. Overmeyer says no developer is going to add the cost of demolition to his or her project.

“Redevelopment was a great funding gap filler that made in-fill projects possible,” he says. “We don’t have that anymore, and so we are getting creative.”

The Manabe-Ow deed, however, bans constructing “big box stores”—any store larger than 20,000 square feet—until 2030. This is too long to wait for Dodge, who says the city needs to prepare for the future now.

“Time is of the essence,” says Dodge. “On top of deed restrictions there are restrictions from the Coastal Commission put on Santa Cruz County that don’t exist anywhere else in the state that restrict development here.”

Watsonville is now the fastest-growing area in the county and is expected to surpass Santa Cruz’s population within 10 years, according to Alejo. He says the city must prepare a new economic environment because when unemployment does start dropping in south Santa Cruz County, the jobs his parents’ generation had will not be returning.

“Watsonville used to be the frozen food capital of the world,” says Alejo. “With the passage of NAFTA a lot of those jobs were sent to South America.”

Dodge’s suggested a Costco for Sakata-Kett because they are a union company with a good record of employee relations. He and APV agree that if a large store does come in, they will be choosy. Both say they are against Wal-Mart—a company that tried to open there in recent years—coming to town because of a poor record of paying low wages and denying promotions to certain groups.

“Working for John Martinelli [S. Martinell & Co.] I had health insurance, could pay my rent and have a little left over,” says Dodge, recalling an earlier Watsonville job of his. “Nowadays for a lot of people hope is a dream.”

He also says that his plan would not violate Measure U’s limits because the city’s voters would approve it if given the chance.

“I believe that about two-thirds support the annexation,” Dodge says. “I have not talked with anyone that doesn’t support it.”

He also doesn’t shy away from claims he often hears that he is trying to disenfranchise property owners who are concerned that changes to the city landscape could affect the value of their assets.

“If people want to have a conversation about race, I am happy to have it because we do live in a racially segregated county,” he says.

Only 52.5 percent of Watsonville residents over the age of 25 have high school diplomas compared with Santa Cruz, where 37 percent have bachelor’s degrees, according to the 2010 United States Census. Dodge says bringing a Costco in would raise future revenue that would help fund schools and open more opportunities to residents.

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