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Will Watsonville Preserve Its Ag Land With Measure U Renewal?

A group led by environmentalists express the importance of continuing a measure that protects green space

The renewal of Measure U, designed as a compromise to preserve Watsonville ag land while allowing for limited housing growth, could be on the ballot next year. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

What makes it tough to write about something that happened 20 years ago is that many of the decision-makers and power brokers are no longer around. People move away. They move up. They move on. Some, incredibly, even change their stance. 

Another big challenge: the people living with the repercussions of said decision sometimes don’t even know it ever happened. That could be the case in November of next year, when a slightly altered version of a landmark Watsonville ballot measure may go before voters for renewal.

Measure U, passed by Watsonville voters in 2002, put limits on where and how the city could expand, in an effort to protect the Pajaro Valley’s rich agricultural land and wetlands. Some of the measure’s limits are set to expire next year, and the rest will expire five years later.

The Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection recently filed a petition to the Watsonville City Clerk’s office that seeks to extend Measure U through 2040. The committee and its supporters are currently gathering the roughly 2,200 signatures—or 10% of Watsonville’s voting body—needed by Dec. 15 to put the item before voters next year. 

Watsonville’s city manager Matt Huffaker tells GT in an email that “the implications of this measure are far-reaching and can’t be overstated. It will chart a course for the future of Watsonville for decades to come.”

Field workers harvest strawberries on a farm on Sunset Beach Road. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

Measuring In

Measure U is, at its core, an amendment to Watsonville’s outdated but still standing 2005 general plan, and to truly understand it, one has to go back to a public battle over roughly 1,000 acres of farmland and wetlands in the late 1990s. Environmentalists and farmers fought the city when it tried to expand its sphere of influence to eventually annex properties on the west side of the city so that it could build housing and bring light industrial jobs such as packaging and food processing.

Just as it is today, the city was in the midst of housing affordability and unemployment crises after roughly 3,000 jobs, mostly middle-class gigs in the canning industry, were shipped out of the country as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement’s implementation in 1994. Trying to spark economic growth, the city sought to expand its footprint in the hopes of luring other large employers to replace the blue-collared professions that had fled.

Environmentalists, however, said the city’s outward expansion, especially to the west of Highway 1, would ultimately lead to urban sprawl—and the end of the Pajaro Valley’s place as an agricultural giant.

Over years of meetings and lawsuits, annexation plans were gutted from 1,000 acres to just 94. Even then, county leaders on the Local Agency Formation Commission voted 4-3 to halt the expansion. The late Mardi Wormhoudt, a longtime Santa Cruz mayor and supervisor known for her progressive politics, was the deciding vote. 

Watsonville leaders were devastated that the county had multiple times told them what was best for their city. City Councilman Lowell Hurst, who first served from 1988-1998, said the decision had made Watsonville the county’s “designated ghetto,” according to news reports. Former councilman Ramon Gomez, now an analyst with supervisor Greg Caput’s office, then said he was “insulted” by the county’s lack of faith in the city’s ability to manage its own growth.

But out of that defeat arose Action Pajaro Valley, a nonprofit that brought together the community to help create a long-term plan of how Watsonville would grow and meet the myriad of challenges the city then faced. Former Watsonville City Manager Carlos Palacios, now Santa Cruz County’s administrative officer, and West Marine founder Randy Repass co-chaired the nonprofit.

The end result was Measure U, and in 2002 Watsonville voters approved it with 60% of the vote. It had the support of the city council, Farm Bureau and Watsonville Wetlands Watch, as well as several other county and state agencies.

Compromise was at the heart of Measure U, Palacios says. Watsonville would give up most of its annexation plans to the east and west, and would instead focus its efforts to the north in the Buena Vista area. There, roughly 2,200 homes would be built in three phases over 20 years.

In addition, the city would also develop the Manabe-Ow property (then Manabe-Burgstrom) for industrial use, provide more senior housing on the southeast side of the city and eventually annex property off Atkinson Lane to build needed affordable housing.

Some of these concessions have been realized today. But Buena Vista has sat undeveloped for the last 20 years, thanks mostly to land-use restrictions related to nearby Watsonville Municipal Airport that were solidified by a 2010 lawsuit from the Watsonville Pilots Association. Huffaker says that the development of the Buena Vista area is most likely “no longer feasible” because of this.

“In some aspects, Measure U was a success—it protected ag land and some homes were built,” Palacios says. “But not being able to develop Buena Vista, it’s tough to call it a complete success without that.”

Field workers tend to a field of raised strawberry rows along Beach Road in Watsonville. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

Home Renovation 

The committee supporting the renewal of Measure U had its opening press conference in July behind Ramsay Park in a parking lot near the Watsonville Nature Center. Not only did the Nature Center serve as a backdrop for the group’s wetlands preservation plans, but the parking lot was also within a stone’s throw from a recently completed housing development.

Bob Culbertson, the director of the Watsonville Wetlands Watch and a committee leader, pointed up to the 48-townhome development during his speech, highlighting how it repurposed a roughly five-acre lot that once contained a single home overlooking the neighboring slough. It’s an example, he said, of the dormant housing potential Watsonville has scattered throughout its small footprint. But just behind their press conference podium, a man in tattered clothes with a cloth over his face could be seen sleeping on the grass, and some 30 yards away two tents poked out of the bushes along the slough. On top of that, the townhomes Culbertson referenced in his speech are being rented for a little under $3,000 a month.

Watsonville’s housing woes didn’t start when Measure U went into effect, but the city’s inability to easily build enough homes for its residents has without a doubt contributed to the well-reported crisis. Since 2002, Watsonville has approved the construction of 2,104 housing units, says the city’s Community Development Department Director Suzi Merriam. And yet, Huffaker adds, “housing affordability is more challenging today than ever.”

With more than 52,000 people living in a little more than six square miles, Watsonville is the 100th most densely populated location in the state. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, is 99th, and the cities of Santa Cruz and Capitola are 300th and 159th, respectively. But Culbertson and the committee leaders say that the city should become even more densely populated. They say that dozens of vacant properties throughout the city must be developed before leaders ever think of approving construction on agricultural land.

Watsonville’s 2015-2023 housing element, a state-mandated document used by cities to set housing goals, found that the city in 2015 had the potential to build an estimated 1,445 units over 105 acres of land. But over the last seven years, developers have picked many of the city’s vacant lots that were ripe for housing, and many “underutilized” properties that had the most accessible housing potential have also since been redeveloped.

The remaining options for projects that entice developers and make significant dents in the housing stock shortage are slim, and most come with significant baggage. Two current developments that were once junkyards, for example, are dealing with significant challenges because of concerns around soil contamination, and others—mostly affordable housing projects—have faced pushback from neighbors worried that existing issues with parking, traffic and pedestrian safety in their already compact communities will only get worse with more housing.

Merriam says her department is trying to unlock the housing potential in the city’s center with a downtown specific plan, a document that will set new regulations for density and land use in the historic corridor. The city is doing this, Merriam says, both because of the restrictions on outward growth, and the state’s increasing demand on cities to alter their zoning so that they can meet mandated housing goals. The state told the city in 2016 it needed to accommodate the space for 700 new units. Merriam says that number will likely double or triple in its new eight-year allocation.

Even with elected leaders that have largely been pro-housing, Merriam says, Watsonville is still falling behind demand.

“For other cities, sometimes they have a hard time building housing because their city councils won’t approve projects,” she says. “That’s not the case here. The thing we’re seeing is that we’re running out of space.”

A field worker checks on plastic-covered strawberry rows on a farm on Sunset Beach Road. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

Candid Conversations

Some residents interviewed for this story said they see Watsonville as an agricultural gem with an unsung workforce that spans decades of hardworking immigrants. For others, the city is a beacon of democracy—Gomez v. City of Watsonville, and the district elections that followed, are shining examples of that. And there are the folks who say Watsonville is a diamond in the rough that is waiting for the right leader to activate everything that makes it special: art, history and food. Of course, a few people also told me that Watsonville is where dreams go to die.

Those snippets do not wholly represent Watsonville, but I’d be wrong if I said that they don’t encapsulate the city’s spirit of overcoming adversity. Put plainly, if you grew up in Watsonville, as I did, you’re often taught that nobody is going to give you anything—not even the people who are supposed to be helping you. For many Watsonville families, that attitude comes from time spent working in agriculture. Whether it was their ancestors who immigrated from their home country to work in the fields or second-generation Americans that worked the line at the canneries, it’s tough to find a Watsonville native who doesn’t have a connection to ag.

It’s for this reason that former Watsonville Mayor Daniel Dodge, Sr. says that Measure T was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2013. That ballot measure sought to amend the urban line limit set by Measure U to open up 95 acres of farmland—less than 1% of the 23,000 acres of the county’s farmland—near Highway 1 to commercial development. Dodge, now the president of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and the executive director of the Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers, brought the measure to Watsonville voters at a time in which the city was facing record-high unemployment rates and struggling to provide services to the large Latinx community that fills many of the low-wage agricultural jobs.

Dodge admits that his opponents ran a better campaign by playing to the makeup of Watsonville voters at that time: older homeowners that have a “romanticized” view of the good old days when the city was small, and had very few of the urban issues that it is dealing with today. Approval of Measure T, Dodge says, would have promoted the expansion of city services and provided residents with self-determination.

A proud Chicano who worked in the canneries before diving into labor issues, Dodge helped gather signatures to put Measure U on the ballot because it was the result of the year-long community visioning process. He says the fact that the committee is instead hoping to put an extension before voters for an at-large election is disingenuous to the people of Watsonville, many of whom are not registered voters. Some can’t vote because of their legal status, and others are not yet of voting age.

The renewal might be especially damaging to the latter, Dodge says, as young people who get a college education and want to come back home to improve their city will not have the housing or jobs to do so without growth. 

“In Santa Cruz County, the racism is liberal racism,” Dodge says. “It’s nothing malicious. It’s not something that’s overt on its face…It’s small groups of people—big ag and environmental elitists—telling an entire community what’s best and determining the community they should be. That, to me, is racism…They’re making a decision that’s going to affect two generations, and they don’t even want to have a conversation about it.”

But committee organizers say they’re not making the decision for the community. Instead, says organizer Karina Moreno, they’re trying to educate residents about the renewal and let them make the decision next November.

“It’s really going to be up to them,” she says. “What direction does Watsonville want to go in?”

Moreno, like Dodge and many fellow Watsonville residents, has deep roots in agriculture. Her grandmother worked in the fields, her uncle was a trucker and her stepfather is a longtime Watsonville strawberry farmer. But she was ultimately driven toward the committee through her role as a member of the board of directors for the Watsonville Wetlands Watch. It wasn’t until she was 14 that she found out that Watsonville had some of California’s few remaining wetlands. Now 29, Moreno says it’s her passion to help preserve those native lands and bring Watsonville’s young people to them.

“It’s a really rewarding experience,” she says. “I still remember bringing kids to the beach, and some of the kids said it was the first time that they were there.”

Moreno, an analyst with Families In Transition, admits that it wasn’t until last year that she knew of Measure U. She says that she is now well aware of the critiques the committee might face over the next year. But she says she disagrees that the committee is not for housing. As a prospective homeowner who constantly surfs the web for new listings but continues to strike out on anything within her price range, she says she understands the challenge her generation faces in trying to buy a home. But, she says, there are better ways to solve the housing crisis than overtaking farmland.

“I do want to buy a house,” she says, “but not at the cost of someone else’s livelihood.”

Watsonville Brillante, a massive art project currently underway in Watsonville, is one of several art pieces throughout the city that highlights the area’s agricultural roots. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian file

Work To Do

Committee member Sam Earnshaw in his comments at the opening press conference said that Measure U has served Watsonville well and that citizens “don’t want gentrification or us becoming a bedroom community for Santa Cruz, San Jose, Salinas and Gilroy.” But Watsonville, in many respects, already is a bedroom community for neighboring cities.

That’s according to the Santa Cruz County 2021 State of the Workforce. That comprehensive report found that although the job quality in Santa Cruz County has improved from 2014-2019, the proportion of low-skilled, low-paying jobs in the county is still greater than the statewide average. The county also lags behind the state in the number of higher-paying, high-skilled jobs. 

The report also found that Santa Cruz County is a large exporter of talent. In fact, there were more resident workers in the county than jobs in the study’s five occupational categories, meaning thousands of residents are commuting out of the county for work. Unsurprisingly, residents in South County—where the demographics are much younger than North County and about a third of the population 25 and older does not have a high school diploma—are more likely to drive, carpool or take a motorcycle to work than their northern counterparts.

That suggests, the report states, that while South County residents’ jobs—many in the service and production industries—have moved further away and have made them less likely to walk, bike and use public transit to commute, jobs for North County residents have become more locally available.

The Watsonville City Council in July tasked staff with assembling a report that will investigate the effect an extension of Measure U might have on the city, including on its economic vitality.

Huffaker highlighted Nordic Naturals laying down roots in Watsonville as a success story. But Fox Racing Shox this month told its 222-person staff that it will close its Watsonville factory by spring 2022. Fellow longtime local employer West Marine could also be moving from Watsonville soon. Those two companies, according to city records, were the ninth and 10th largest employers headquartered in Watsonville in 2020.

Only two of Watsonville’s 10 largest employers are agriculture companies, Monterey Mushrooms Inc. and Lakeside Organic Gardens LLC, highlighting the catch-22 the city faces: although agriculture has in many respects shaped Watsonville’s identity, it has also stressed its resources without many tax-related benefits—a product of much of the valuable farmland being outside of city limits. Agriculture does power other local industries such as trucking and food processing, but it also intensifies the pressure for low-income housing and services.

Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau President Arnett Young says that it frustrates him to hear people say that agriculture is solely a low-wage industry. He says the public does not understand the hundreds of jobs at local companies that employ young professionals throughout the Central Coast. Young also argues that agriculture is the county’s most stable industry. He points out that when multiple economic sectors shuttered during the pandemic, agriculture was still bringing in tax revenue for the county’s coffers and money into employees’ pockets. And agriculture has bounced back faster to pre-pandemic levels than many service industries, he says.

In the Watsonville/Salinas district, strawberries were valued at $1.07 billion last year, according to data compiled by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. But agriculture, especially Watsonville’s beloved crop, is indeed facing challenges. Climate change, water use concerns, new fumigation regulations and the increasing cost of land and labor are putting a pinch on many farmers.

Earnshaw, who was part of the original group of environmentalists who fought the city in the 1990s, says the future of agriculture is complex in a wide-ranging interview. The farmer turned environmentalist touches on several topics, including the slow but steady transition to organic products, a possible move to hydroponic farming some 20 years down the road and, his specialty, the use of hedgerows to promote farm sustainability and conservation.

“It’s tough to tell where everything is going, but things are changing,” he says before calling the Pajaro Valley, with its wetlands, proximity to the ocean and rolling hills of agriculture, the “most diverse and beautiful location” on the Central Coast.

“Why would we want to change that?” he asks.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Alejandro Nolasco

    November 4, 2021 at 12:02 pm

    Leave ag-land alone.

  2. ann

    August 26, 2021 at 8:33 am

    Really good and comprehensive article that SHOULD result in a serous debate over the many issues involved. A real debate would allow residents to understand there are trade offs and consequences with every policy decision. Of course you would need representatives of the multiple perspectives to be part of the discussion.

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