Farmland vs. families? Rancor over Watsonville’s future divides along lines of age, equity, an agrarian ideal

Fieldworkers weed kale at Lakeside Organics in Watsonville.
Fieldworkers weed kale at Lakeside Organics in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For the longtime Watsonville folks who support Measure Q, which would keep the urban limit line as it is for two more decades, Pajaro Valley soil is not something worth messing with, imperfections and all. Those among the younger, more diverse population who support Measure S believe the city’s affordability crisis might require more flexibility for growth over that span. Will young voters turn out for S? Will Q supporters convince enough voters there is a real fear of “sprawl” and of Watsonville “turning into San Jose”?

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Mistrust can run high in the often-polarized Pajaro Valley. And a major decision about Watsonville’s future looming on the Nov. 8 ballot has only ratcheted up the raw feelings.

The key stakeholders on each side of the competing Measures Q and S believe the other has been coyly misleading — if not downright deceptive — in the effort to push their message to the electorate.

The reasons for this serious game of rural-urban chess are simple: Many believe that their livelihoods — and highly varying ways of life — are being put to a vote.

The city’s 52,067 inhabitants — and more precisely its 21,854 registered voters — are being asked what kind of Watsonville they want.

Watsonville plaza on Dec. 15, 2020.
Downtown Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Do voters go with Q and double down on the city’s identity as an agrarian utopia, the place consistently touted for having “some of the best soil in the world” that boasts a $280 million farming economy — even as the topic of pesticides still dogs the conversation?

Or do they vote for S and leave room to focus more attention on the growing number of people who live and work there, but can narrowly afford it?

Does the city adjust its legacy, allowing future city councils more flexibility in making decisions on land use, which would likely provide a greater mix of housing options and the ability to house those of differing income levels, while converting some of that world-class agricultural land and preserving the borders environmentalists fought for decades ago?

In essence: What does Watsonville see itself as over the next two decades? And who gets to decide that vision?

The S side hasn’t been afraid to pull threads of classism, racism — even imperialism — in this fight. But the ultimate determinant for how one feels about potential growth along the city’s farmland-strewn boundary lines might mostly have to do with age.

The current urban limit lines (ULL).
The current urban limit lines (ULL) as drawn via Measure U of 2022. Click on the photo to go to Watsonville’s GIS mapping site.
(Via City of Watsonville)

A matter of perspective

Q leadership and supporters, older, whiter and dominated largely by ag industry veterans and environmentalists, thinks the onetime American dream of moving into a single-family home with a big yard where kids and dogs can roam freely has already gone poof in the Pajaro Valley.

Who will be able to afford those million-dollar houses? Not the people who need them here in Watsonville.

“Who will be able to afford those million-dollar houses? Not the people who need them here in Watsonville,” says Q leader Sam Earnshaw, 79. “That’s old-fashioned thinking. Things have changed for young people, not just here and across the Bay Area, but in the United States.”

They also believe there are plenty of unused plots within city limits to be considered for development over the next 20 years. They even used a 2016 study of vacant and underutilized parcels by the city to put together a pictorial of the available plots (example below) and they cite the city’s own math that 3,910 potential units exist in the downtown area alone. They cite eight pages’ worth of the city’s Housing Element (pages 59-67) showing vacant or underutilized parcels within city limits.

One of the numerous available parcels within city limits
One of the numerous available parcels within city limits, as documented by the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection.

Considering those numbers, “the need to explain where the 2,053 housing units required for the next eight years by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment becomes moot,” says Bob Culbertson, a longtime champion of the area’s slough systems and open space. “We have wonderful opportunities inside the current limit line to grow Watsonville sustainably and protect farmland.”

Earnshaw notes developments in the works all over the city and says there are models in place for how to use what’s available before valuable farmland enters the conversation. He says those behind Q aren’t tuned out to the need for housing; they just want the city to focus first on what already exists.

Sam Earnshaw.
(Via Sam Earnshaw)

“They’re already doing it,” he said. “If the land wasn’t so valuable and if there weren’t available sites, then we’d be all for it.”

S leadership — younger, more diverse and frustrated by how the affordability crisis is affecting its chance at home ownership — paints a picture of special interests. They speak of wealthy ag folks — many living in Corralitos or the Aptos hills, not Watsonville, they say — trying to use the measure to sway the future of the city by putting agricultural interests ahead of its young (average age 31), diverse (84% Hispanic) citizenry.

Some decry what they believe is an inherent inequity that ties directly to the valley’s agricultural interests. They wonder where the concern is for the people who do the work — those who face low wages, multifamily living conditions and exposure to harmful pesticides.

Watsonville is not just a receptacle for agricultural workers.

“Watsonville is not just a receptacle for agricultural workers,” said Kristal Salcido, 37 and an assistant district attorney with the county who is running unopposed for the 4th District city council seat. “If we want to support our agricultural workforce, we need to use all of the tools available for city planning. If the messaging is it just has to stay farmland and that’s it, then that really doesn’t even account for their own workforce needs.

Kristal Salcido.
(Via Kristal Salcido)

“And that’s what’s hard for me. It’s like, ‘Have you land owners been to where your agricultural workers actually are living?’ A lot of them live in Watsonville and a lot of them live in really desolate conditions. And I wish they could see that … because I’ve seen it.”

Even more so than most places, the voices that traditionally turn out to vote skew older. And S supporters don’t deny that fact scares them.

“This is about the future of Watsonville and who the affordability crisis has impacted the most,” Salcido said. “It’s going to take the millennial voter — we’re the ones who have lived this reality.”

What the votes mean for each

A vote for Q is essentially a vote for keeping growth along the current urban limit line (ULL) the same, not allowing the city council to annex farmland over the next 20 years. One set of those borders, set in 2002, expires next month; another in 2027.

Watsonville's next mayor, Eduardo Montesino.
(Via Eduardo Montesino)

S supporters say Q action group Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection gathered more than 3,000 signatures to get it on the ballot by alarming citizens that precious slough land would be open for annexation and development, an assertion they say is false.

“They used scare tactics that just weren’t true,” said Councilmember Eduardo Montesino, who will become the city’s next mayor.

A vote for S keeps the door open for the city to consider certain land annexations if they made sense.

Q supporters say S was hastily thrown together by city councilmembers in response to Q and provides a sneaky loophole for the city to snatch up ag land under the guise of affordable housing — and instead will result in the building of big box stores and other sprawl to bolster a strapped tax base.

Their most pointed claim against the city: a failure by the city attorney to write an unbiased summary of the measure. “As a result, city councilmembers have made decisions based on questionable information,” Earnshaw said.

The key Measure Q messages:

  • You don’t want Watsonville to become San Jose.
  • You don’t want to squander one inch of the Pajaro Valley’s beloved agricultural soil.
  • You don’t need to risk sprawl on the city’s outer limits when plenty of new housing opportunities exist downtown and elsewhere.
  • Earnshaw’s summary: “As long as there are available sites within city limits, our valuable farmland should not be annexed and developed.”
The city limits and urban limit line map used by the Measure Q campaign.

The key Measure S messages:

  • Building up in the downtown zone isn’t enough and isn’t for everyone.
  • Economic growth and opportunities for struggling millennials will depend on having the flexibility to grow horizontally as well as vertically.
  • Families — many of them working long hours for low wages in those agricultural fields — are living two and three to a small unit, and the affordability crisis demands all options for growth be explored.
  • Montesino’s primary takeaway: “We don’t just need downtown apartments. We need a variety of things.”

A history of protecting ag land

In the 1970s, Santa Cruz County had been one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, averaging a 4.6% population increase annually. Environmental, traffic, water and sewer concerns were dwarfed by only the fear of losing the area’s most prized commodity: its open rural spaces, such as the rich agricultural earth of the Pajaro Valley.

For that reason, County Supervisor Gary Patton helped outline Measure J. In the years since it was passed in 1978, Measure J was said to be one of the most extensive and effective county growth-management programs the state has ever seen.

Gary A. Patton is the co-chair of Save Santa Cruz and was District 3 county supervisor for 20 years.
Gary A. Patton is the co-chair of Save Santa Cruz and was District 3 county supervisor for 20 years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s why Santa Cruz County right now has the best ag land protection in the United States,” said Earnshaw. “The reason you drive through Watsonville and you see farmland is because they can’t put subdivisions or big box stores on it.”

Or worse for a unique place like Watsonville: a planned golf community. That nearly became a reality in 1998 when a developer quietly worked with the city to try to annex 646 acres of agricultural land and wetlands along Riverside Drive. A lawsuit helped scuttle it at the final hour — but it sowed the seeds of distrust between city officials and agricultural interests.

We were probably just days away from that land being annexed. That fired everyone up.

“We were probably just days away from that land being annexed,” Earnshaw said. “That fired everyone up.”

That’s why in 2002, a spirited public outreach process between the city and an advocacy group called Action Pajaro Valley led to Measure U in Watsonville, which passed by a wide margin and demarcated the ULL boundaries that exist today.

It was March when the farmland protection committee brought forth U’s would-be successor in Measure Q. City councilmembers began plotting their countermeasure in S. A compromise was nearly reached in June when the Q committee offered to include the iconic Redman-Hirahara property on Lee Road across Highway 1 in the urban limit line and pull Measure Q from the ballot.

The iconic Redman-Hirahara house off Lee Road.
(Via Twitter)

By a 4-3 vote on July 7, with several members changing their earlier stance, the council decided that the compromise wasn’t sufficient — partly because that property’s place in the coastal zone makes it far more difficult to develop — and the Q and S battle was on.

“Four councilmembers voted against this, and lost the opportunity for the Redman-Hirahara property to finally be part of Watsonville,” says a Q&A put out by the committee. “It was a historic compromise, and a historic decision to reject this for the city.”

To those watching it from the other side, it looked very different: “They said, ‘We’ll sweeten the pot’ and then when those negotiations fell through, it was like, ‘Well then, you don’t get anything,’” Salcido said.

‘Live as I say, not as I live’

Salcido recalls what it was like to work her way through law school, living with multiple roommates along the way, hoping when she finally got a good job she would feel the sense of independence she had been convinced would be there.

Instead, she said the only way home ownership in Watsonville worked out for her was the good fortune of partnering with her future husband on a place in 2015. Watsonville made sense because he works in Monterey while she makes the commute to Santa Cruz.

I faced the situation of having a very respectable career and still not being able to find housing.

“I faced the situation of having a very respectable career and still not being able to find housing,” she said. “The whole push was to get as educated as possible and be a successful adult, but then there’s the struggle of large student loan payments and astronomical rent. The people that have higher levels of education, who traditionally would be in a much more stable space, even they are really struggling to stay in Watsonville.”

Kristal Salcido is running unopposed for the 4th District council seat in Watsonville.
(Via Kristal Salcido)

Salcido said the American dream of home ownership is not dead, but it will require very conscious decision-making efforts by municipalities like Watsonville to make it more realistic for most people.

“Home equity is still an incredible opportunity — it’s one I’m really grateful to have,” she said. “But it really did shape my perspective on Measures Q and S. We need the same flexibility that every other city council has in this county. No other city is restricted in the way that Watsonville is. Santa Cruz, Capitola, Scotts Valley — they all have wonderful natural resources. But no one has tried to impose these restrictions in the same way.”

It also concerns Salcido when she looks at the list of financiers behind Measure Q — a majority of them “from people who don’t live in the city … don’t live in Districts 1 through 7, don’t live in a single-family house here. The messaging is like, ‘Live as I say, not as I live.’”

She said to her it is the very definition of special-interest politics and that the Measure Q camp’s use of the term sprawl has struck the wrong chord with her and many others.

“In the context of the housing crisis, calling places where human beings will live ‘sprawl,’ I would say is problematic language,” she said. “If you’ve actually seen the conditions that some people in Watsonville actually live in … entire families living in uninsulated garages, that language really struck me.”

‘Our valley is unique to the world’

Earnshaw, an early organic farming pioneer, is disappointed in how the “poisoning” of the Pajaro Valley’s magnificent soil continues this many years later. (As Lookout reported last month, only 20% of the county’s agriculture is produced organically.)

But Earnshaw said he is also willing to fight to keep the land that soil sits on from being paved over as he continues his own personal fight to purify it.

Sam Earnshaw remains a fierce advocate for organic farming methods.
(Via Sam Earnshaw)

“I didn’t come from a farming background,” he said. “But then I learned about how our valley here is unique to the world. There’s a tiny percent of the world that has these soils and this climate. And it could very easily be a World Heritage Site.”

In other words, Earnshaw says, the soil of the Pajaro Valley might just put it historic on par with Florida’s Everglades, West Virginia’s Great Smoky Mountains or San Antonio’s missions.

Earnshaw and his wife, Jo Ann Baumgartner, opened one of the first organic operations in Watsonville, Neptune Farms, in the 1990s because, he said, “if we’re going to push this movement, we wanted to walk the talk.”

Earnshaw recalls it was while they were conducting a research project on a conventional farm that they learned the ugly truth about most agricultural production.

Nobody knows the poisons that are used to produce food. It’s totally toxic agriculture.

“We had to keep track of all the fertilizers and all the pesticides that were put on the fields,” he said. “And that was an eye-opener. Nobody knows the poisons that are used to produce food. It’s totally toxic agriculture.”

Even though they are no longer farming, they remain active in the organic movement across California. While it’s been “a slow fight because of capitalism,” Earnshaw looks at the measures being pushed at the state and federal levels and says, “it is happening — it’s going to happen.” Baumgartner directs the Wild Farm Alliance, which aims “to promote agriculture that helps to protect and restore wild nature.”

It’s through that lens — of what the soil of Pajaro Valley can and should be — that Earnshaw believes protecting every inch of farmland is essential. Through the process of fighting back golf community developments, while watching available parcels within the city sit untouched, it’s mind-blowing to him that there’s any discussion about annexing farmland.

“We knocked on a lot of doors and heard the same thing: We want to protect our farmland,” he said. “We do not want Watsonville to turn into San Jose.”


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