It’s time for Watsonville to move forward, but also to protect farmland

Sam Earnshaw.
(Via Sam Earnshaw)

Measure Q was a huge success for Watsonville, writes advocate and former farmer Sam Earnshaw; by renewing the urban limit line, voters showed they don’t want Watsonville to sprawl unchecked like San Jose. Instead, he and others “envision a more positive and imaginative future for our city.”

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Many of you know that in 1978, Santa Cruz County passed Measure J — a countywide growth-management measure that created agricultural zoned parcels protected from development. This has given Santa Cruz County some of the strongest farmland protection in the U.S.

In 1998, the City of Watsonville attempted to annex 1,000 acres of that protected farmland, and the community came together with Action Pajaro Valley and four years later passed Measure U, which established an urban limit line (ULL).

In 2013, the city tried once again to annex farmland with the failed Measure T, which wanted to take 212 acres of fertile land on Riverside Drive, which is visible as you drive out of town.

The original Measure U started to expire in November, and the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection organized and placed Measure Q on the Nov. 8 ballot, aimed at extending our farmland protection until 2040.

With its passage by over 67% of the voters, it showed that Watsonville citizens want to see the city grow in an orderly manner, which does not involve willy-nilly searching around for nice flat pieces of farmland to put up a Costco or Walmart for city revenues or to build out a nice big subdivision with “single-family homes” that some city council members think will be “so good” for our population.

It takes little imagination for cities to provide new housing and commercial centers by sprawling outward and converting their surrounding open space to streets and buildings.

That’s how the sprawling growth of San Jose began.

But we, supporters of renewing Watsonville’s existing urban limit line, envision a more positive and imaginative future for our city.

The current focus should be on infill development on the existing vacant and underutilized parcels within city limits. Part of our argument addressed the productivity and job creation associated with agriculture that would be lost if the city began piece by piece annexing parcels of existing farmland, which, if you look at a map, is what exists around the outside borders of the ULL.

The city limits and urban limit line map used by the Measure Q campaign.

Watsonville farmland is a major driver of the agricultural economy of Santa Cruz County. The total gross production value of Santa Cruz County agricultural commodities for 2020 was $636 million, which is equal to over $1.5 billion with the multiplier effect on the economy.

There will always be reasons to pave over farmland. And there will always be reasons not to.

Those of us who make and have made our living farming see that our money comes literally out of the soil, while most people’s money is a number on a piece of paper. That awareness of our wealth gives us an understanding of the value of prime farmland that most people don’t have. We can see why urging development on our nice flat lands makes sense to them, but it also instills a passion in us to protect our greatest asset.

The highest and best use of that land is to grow food.

We have spent a lot of time and energy on this issue. We have driven the city looking at vacant and underutilized sites to showcase the substantial numbers of available sites to address housing issues up to the year 2040 and beyond.

One of the most significant benefits of renewing the ULL would be that in the January 2022 California blueprint proposed by the state, the city will be able to apply for and receive funding. That includes $1 billion proposed for new “infill” housing within developed areas, and for the “affordable housing and sustainable communities” program, which funds land-use, housing, transportation and land-preservation projects. In other words, the city could financially benefit from continuing its infill strategies and supporting ag land preservation.

There is a deep literature on the many hidden costs of urban sprawl. New developments bring additional property tax revenues to cities, but they also add costs, including liability for future infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs that continue indefinitely — and rise over time.

Developer impact fees cover some new infrastructure hard costs (roads, water and sewer, parks, public facilities), but not all of them. And they don’t address capital costs for fire and police stations, water systems, waste removal, portions of some roads and recreation facilities or future costs of maintenance and repair.

Sprawl encroaches on natural areas. For us, that means our unique system of wetlands surrounding the city. This could stress and even eliminate key ecosystem services, such as water filtration, storage and runoff control, wildlife habitat, fresh air, erosion control, pollination, recreation and aesthetic enjoyment.

Other costs that don’t appear on financial statements: air pollution and climate change emissions. One acre of urban land with multiple households generates about 70 times more greenhouse gasses than agriculture.

farmland in Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Who hasn’t heard people lamenting the loss of farmland in San Jose, Gilroy, Los Angeles? Can anyone name one place where sprawl has solved housing, homeless and sky-high housing prices?

This is a historic time, when we just joined 58 Bay Area cities and jurisdictions that also renewed their ULLs. Too bad it can’t be forever, but we’ll take it one step at a time, and creating it with Measure U in 2002 was indeed the first step for Watsonville.

One of our signature gatherers summed it up nicely with an email to me about our committee celebration Dec. 3: “Somehow the event was more of a beginning of coming events than a celebration of something accomplished … it sure was inspiring! Would love to see the farmlands of California, especially Pajaro Valley, named a World Heritage Site.”

There was talk that the next round of activism should be around making the efforts bigger than just the city of Watsonville, but working on some kind of permanent protection for larger areas along the Central Coast, and tying it to the protections offered by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Thoughts and actions to keep in mind.

Let’s all work together on growth issues that can be addressed as we embark on the 2050 Watsonville General Plan.

City council members knew since 2018 that some people in the community were talking about Measure U expiring and what that would mean. We reached out to the city, with meetings with the city manager and council members, but they stonewalled us, when they could have initiated the “community process” that they accused us of ignoring.

Now there is a real opportunity for a community process.

With a new city manager and new city council, we can move forward on these important growth issues. This includes getting started on understanding the “downtown specific plan,” getting community committees working on the 2050 general plan, looking at the industrial area along Walker Street for mixed-use potential and taking another review of existing vacant and underutilized sites throughout the city.

We should be proud of our victory, having engaged and energized the voters of Watsonville to once again make a strong statement in defense of our agricultural heritage and resist the slow creep of urban sprawl.

People on all sides of the recent vote to renew our urban limit line have a lot in common in their visions for Watsonville in the future.

The future is now: Let’s work together and move forward.

Sam Earnshaw studied forestry at UC Berkeley (1974) and is the former owner of Neptune Farms. From 1992-2011, he served as a program coordinator for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). He currently runs Hedgerows Unlimited and is also a technical service provider with Natural Resources Conservation Service, currently working on the design and installation of hedgerows, grassed waterways, filter strips and riparian restoration on farms. He is the author of 2018’s “Hedgerows and Farmscaping for California Agriculture: A Resource Guide for Farmers.”

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