Ballot Initiative Helps Resolve Watsonville's Growth Wars
After decades of fights over annexation and housing development, voters have provided the City of Watsonville with a long-range plan for growth that spells out where and when the coastal city should grow.
Measure U, approved by 60% of voters in November 2002, amends the general plan to dictate what territory the city should annex during the next 25 years. Measure U also blocks the city from annexing other land that is in the city's sphere of influence, and provides for about 2,000 housing units outside the existing city limits. Although a ballot initiative is providing this broad guidance, city officials had a great deal of say regarding the initiative, and the City Council endorsed it during the campaign.
As important as Measure U is as a planning document, it might be even more important in helping to settle longstanding feuds among the city, the county, housing advocates, farmers, environmentalists, old-time families, and Latino community leaders. For example, the ballot argument in favor of Measure U was signed by two city councilmembers, a farm bureau representative, a local wetlands activist and a community college district trustee.
Measure U was the result of "four years of meeting and talking and compromising," Watsonville City Manager Carlos Palacios said. "It's definitely not everything I personally wanted as the city manager. But it does provide for some new housing and economic development. It does provide a measure of certainty."
Ironically, this certainty — which the Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and other entities have demanded for years — might be difficult to achieve. Measure U contains timeframes and triggers for annexations. Yet under the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act, the city would have to submit multiple applications to LAFCO over a course of years to implement the initiative. In other words, the city would have to fight new annexation battles for two decades, despite Measure U.
So, city officials are talking about some sort of "phased annexation" process, in which LAFCO would approve one large proposal up front. City officials have concluded they need special legislation to accommodate that approach, and they might request a bill this year.
The LAFCO has made no policy statements so far and does not even have an application to consider, but Measure U definitely makes the agency's job easier, said LAFCO Executive Officer Patrick McCormick.
"It was not a friendly relationship in the past," McCormick said. "It was a lot more work, and it was unpleasant. Now, this is a technical challenge to figure out a way to accomplish the task. We're not fighting one another. … The big tricky question is going to be the nature of the phased approval."
A city of nearly 50,000 people located between Santa Cruz and Monterey, Watsonville has provided a great deal of the farmworker housing for the coastal farm industry. That has been a sore issue for some Watsonville community leaders, who believe other jurisdictions treat their city as a dumping ground. However, Santa Cruz County and most of its cities have strong slow-growth policies.
Watsonville's more accommodating approach to growth — it grew 42% during the 1990s — has caused the city trouble with farmers and environmentalists, who have fought the city's expansion.
In 1999, a group of community leaders formed Action Pajaro Valley, of which City Manager Palacios is co-chairman. The intent was for the group to weigh the future of a 120-square-mile area, which includes Watsonville, the unincorporated community of Pajaro, and farmland and rural neighborhoods in both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. The Packard and Irvine foundations provided money for a one-year "visioning" process.
That visioning process led to a land management plan, a proposed redrafting of Watsonville's urban limit line, and Measure U, explained Lisa Dobbins, Action Pajaro Valley executive director. The organization first got community groups lined up behind the growth strategy, then got those groups to endorse the initiative. Supporters formed a separate entity to run the actual Measure U campaign. In the end, interest groups feared being left out of a political movement that had traction.
The initiative offered something for just about everybody, Dobbins said. The farm bureau received some certainty about how the city would expand, environmentalists won assurance the city would not grow between Highway 1 and the coast, business and development interests got room to grow, housing and anti-poverty advocates saw a plan for 2,000 additional housing units, some a which will have affordability and/or age covenants.
"This was really a political dance in the sense that if we don't do this, we might get nothing," Dobbins said.
Two groups believe they did get nothing: residents in a rural area just north of the city limits known as Buena Vista — which Measure U designates for annexation and housing development — and pilots at the Watsonville Airport.
A group called Friends of Buena Vista complain that the city would substantially alter their large-lot, rural neighborhood — a charge to which city officials and Measure U backers plead guilty. Measure U guides much of the city's growth to 395 acres in Buena Vista, which would be built out over the course of 20 years. The city needs to grow somewhere, Measure U backers reason, and Buena Vista is the best choice because it is not prime farmland.
But Friends of Buena Vista argue that the city should concentrate on infill and revitalization before annexing new territory. "Extending the ULL is unnecessary; improving existing conditions is imperative," stated the ballot argument against Measure U.
Buena Vista residents also complained that they could not vote on an initiative that will change their way of lives; Measure U was a City of Watsonville initiative.
Pilots, who have long been on the defensive in Watsonville, fear that the nearby Buena Vista development will put further pressure on the city to close the air field.
This opposition is a big reason that Watsonville officials want to line up approval for Measure U's annexations and sphere-of-influence amendments all at once — even if the changes might not take effect for 15 years or more. The city might have LAFCO's support now, but there is no guarantee that backing will exist in 10 years, Palacios noted.
Measure U's effect on the general plan is causing the city to rework a general plan update that was already under way. That update needs to continue but also must reflect the initiative. Palacios figures the general plan update will take "a couple of years."
"It makes our general plan update easier because it's already been decided by Measure U where growth is going to go," Community Development Director John Doughty said.
Still, implementing the initiative is going to be a great deal of work. The city must prepare several specific plans and area plans, and perform environmental review of all the proposals, he said. A recent appellate court ruling regarding environmental review of a series of projects at the Port of Los Angeles could lengthen the process, Doughty added. The decision in Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (see CP&DR Legal Digest, December 2002) makes clear that Watsonville needs to do detailed environmental review up front on specific plans that will not be implemented for as many as 15 years, he said.
In the meantime, the city could still move ahead on annexing 53 acres of industrial property along Highway 1 because that land is already in the city's sphere of influence, Palacios said. The first phase of the Buena Vista project would likely be next.
Carlos Palacios, Watsonville city manager, (831) 728-6011.
John Doughty, Watsonville community development department, (831) 728-6018.
Patrick McCormick, Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission, (831) 454-2055.
Lisa Dobbins, Action Pajaro Valley, (831) 786-8536.
Action Pajaro Valley website: www.actionpajarovalley.org
Friends of Buena Vista website: www.friendsofbuenavista.com