An upcoming vote in Santa Cruz County next week pits agricultural interests against public officials who want to diversify the economy. Measure T would allow the City of Watsonville to annex 95 acres of farmland. It's the only measure on the ballot in a special election this Tuesday.
Isaac Rodriguez stands on a street in downtown Watsonville that is a checkerboard of empty storefronts. It is a town hit hard by the recession. “Currently Watsonville is experiencing 23-24% unemployment rate, and our budget is going through major changes, and the City of Watsonville is having to make a lot of budget cuts,” said Rodriguez, Watsonville’s Park Commissioner. The city’s most important sources of revenue, sales and property taxes, have nosedived. There have been furloughs for city employees, and threats of layoffs for police and firemen. Rodriguez supports Measure T. It would change an earlier measure passed by voters that limits where Watsonville can expand. “If we were to develop 60 acres of this land we would be able to bring in maybe, create 1200 to 1300 new job opportunities,” said Rodriguez.
The land Rodriguez is talking about sits along the east and west sides of Highway 1 between Riverside Drive and West Beach Street in Watsonville. City officials would like to see the farmland developed into a shopping center or major retailer. They believe doing so would not only bring jobs, but increase badly needed sales and property taxes. Measure T supporter and Watsonville native Julian Posadas says the city cannot not depend on direct revenue from the farms. “There is no farmland in Watsonville, in the city. Actually Watsonville was built on top of prime farmland, potatoes were grown on Lincoln Street before, but that went away you know and then it was apples not long ago,” said Posadas.
About a mile away, Jeanne Byrne walks the field next to her farm stand, just west of Highway one along Riverside Drive. Jeanne and her husband own Highground Organics. They farm 15 acres of the land the city wants to annex. Byrne says annexing the land is just wrong. “This really is prime growing area for the country and the world. So with a growing population to be paving over farmland is really shortsighted,” said Byrne. She rejects the notion that only a shopping center can create jobs. She says agriculture also creates jobs and not just the ones in the fields. “The irrigation supplies, the tractors, the boxes, you know there is so many things that farmers need you know people who make their living by doing welding or that sort of thing,” said Bryne.
Sam Earnshaw shares Jeanne’s passion for farming. He’s a coordinator for the Community Alliance with Family Farms, and says these particular plots are unique. “It is flat. It’s fertile. It’s climate is beautiful. Like farmers all over the world would die for this piece of land,” said Earnshaw. He adds there are other sites in Watsonville that are currently vacant and could be developed. “There are 76 buildings and sites that are available. So you know, I am opposed to building on farmland period, but at least it should be the very last thing to do. It’s a national resource. It’s as valuable as giant sequoias or the ocean,” said Earnshaw.
If the measure passes next Tuesday, the city will still need approval by the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission. The Commission is a regional body responsible for overseeing urban expansion. In the past it has not look favorably on the city’s attempts to annex this land.