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Down on the Farm

Sam Earnshaw
Robert Scheer

Dreams of Fields: Sam Earnshaw, coordinator of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers, shown at the site of the proposed Riverside annexation, contends that the city of Watsonville can develop both jobs and housing without removing valuable farmland.

The city of Watsonville's proposed annexation of prime agricultural land pits environmentalists against city officials seeking urban growth and its big tax revenues as a remedy for economic and social woes

By Kelly Luker

THE PROBLEM, THE OLD-TIMERS in Watsonville will tell you, is that this town just got built in the wrong place. As a rural crossroads, it was situated just fine. Hugging the ocean's edge and tucked beneath the Mt. Madonna foothills, its orchards and fields offered up bushels of produce that thrived on the rich soil, coastal fog and mild climate.

But Watsonville doesn't want to be--and, some say, can't be--rural anymore. Yet with the Monterey County line to the south, an ocean on one side and a mountain range on the other, the city is wrapped in a geographic straitjacket conspiring to prevent developers from reaching their urban dream. That is, unless a sacrifice is offered up.

What the city of Watsonville would like to sacrifice is a portion of what allowed the town to exist in the first place--prime agricultural land. City officials want to annex 814 acres of unincorporated farmland, which they could re-zone for industrial or residential use. The several parcels of land involved fall under two major proposals.

The Riverside Annexation, about 200 acres that can be seen from Highway 1 near the like-named exit, would be rezoned for industrial use. The Tai property, which includes 600 acres of wetlands and sloughs off Lee Road, is scheduled for 1,800 residential units, about half of which would be low-income housing.

As the process lurches forward through various bureaucratic hoops, the debate continues to escalate. Environmentalists say the land in question is some of the best ag land in the world--a precious resource that, once paved, can never be reclaimed. City business leaders and most area politicians favor annexation. They cite Watsonville's social and economic woes--high crime and unemployment rates, overcrowding, dismal drop-out figures--which they say can be addressed with jobs and housing.

The opposing sides tread lightly around these two sacred cows--the environment and poverty. The environmentalists don't want to appear too callous to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. And civic leaders understand that farm life, romanticized and mythologized beyond recognition by a technology-weary society, is far more than just another industry.

Rhetoric still abounds, but the real story wanders somewhere between the stereotypical money-hungry, pro-development city fathers and the elitist environmentalists who put land before disadvantaged farmworkers. As always, the truth is a little more complex.

A City Besieged

CHARLES EADIE IS pulling out topo maps, colored maps and indexed maps. Another giant map of Watsonville looks down from the wall of his office at City Hall, where Eadie toils as the city planner in charge of the annexation projects. Adding to the pile of maps are sheets profiling demographic trends and statistics, which, along with Eadie's anecdotal information, paint a portrait of a city besieged.

Crime rates here are four times the national average, Eadie says, and unemployment has hovered as high as 28 percent. Eadie describes overcrowded conditions--converted garages packed full of families, too many people living in squalid conditions. The population, of which more than half is Hispanic, grows faster than city services can accommodate it.

Eadie understands the concerns of those fighting the annexation--hell, he likes those verdant fields as much as the next guy--but he's frustrated with the no-growthers' ignorance of how cities work. Those folks don't understand the synchronicity--the gestalt--that must happen for a community to grow. "You need three things for a project to happen," he explains. "Property that someone wants to sell, a developer who wants to buy and, most importantly, it's gotta be economically feasible."

Eadie believes both the Riverside parcels and the Tai property contain the ingredients for a rejuvenating tonic to his city's woes. Annexation opponents point to other areas that can be developed--the Buena Vista corridor, infill (undeveloped tracts within the city limits) or the largely unused Watsonville airport. Eadie sighs. Nope, nope and nope.

Unlike the vacant farmlands, Buena Vista had voters who showed up angry as hornets at council meetings when they heard low-income housing might end up in their back yard. And the airport? "The Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments did a report in 1991 and found it unfeasible," replies Eadie. That leaves infill, which, explains the city planner, is missing one or more of those important ingredients. Right now, the Tai company is hot to give the city 1,800 new living quarters. And if the Riverside parcels were developed, well, light industry is lining up to relocate in Watsonville. They'd provide low-skill jobs for the burgeoning population of poorly educated youth.

But there's also the problem of county versus city. In 1978, Santa Cruz County voters approved Measure J, a growth-management ordinance that, as one of its policies, strongly seeks the protection of agricultural lands. The county also has adopted numerous policies since then to protect viable farmland. But these tracts--Tai and Riverside--fall into what is known in local government jargon as Watsonville's "sphere of influence." That is--if push comes to shove--state law allows the city to move toward annexation.

Does it concern Eadie that his city is attempting to override the will of the majority in this county? "Measure J was 20 years ago," he says. "At some point you have to re-evaluate."

Eadie knows if it went to a vote again, the same thing would happen. "Most voters live in Santa Cruz and don't have to live with the consequences. Shouldn't land use policy [here] be dictated by Watsonville?"

Besides, it's only a small piece of farmland, Eadie says. If the city only took this amount every 20 years, it would add up to but 10 percent of the total available farmland in the county after 200 years. In fact, available farmland is increasing, he explains, showing another city-furnished chart that notes almost 1,500 acres of farmland have been added to the total since 1984.

Eadie makes a convincing argument that annexation is the only way out of an intolerable situation.

Unfortunately, it would have been more convincing if some of those facts, studies and assumptions that Charles Eadie and the city uses to answer naysayers' questions weren't a little, well, questionable themselves.

Al Alcala
Robert Scheer

Standing on Principles: Watsonville Mayor Al Alcala is convinced that environmentalists who oppose the annexation do not understand the seriousness of his city's economic and social problems.

The Sales Tax Jackpot

THE BATTLE BETWEEN agriculture and urbanization is being fought not just in Watsonville but throughout California's Central Valley, a region considered the most important agricultural resource in the country, if not the world. Counties from Yolo and Sutter to Fresno and Kern are watching fields and orchards fall beneath the bulldozers, making way for houses, mini-malls and industrial parks.

According to Al Sokolow, Ph.D., a former political science professor for UC-Davis who now works for the university's cooperative extension on public policies, cities in California's farmbelt have been annexing about 30,000 acres of prime farmland a year for the last dozen or so years. Out of what he estimates to be a total of three to four million available agricultural acres, Sokolow admits, "that makes a small dent. Unfortunately," he adds, "that is among the best of the farmland."

Sokolow takes an evenhanded view of the events he sees unfolding throughout the farmlands of this state. "It is a dilemma," he notes. "In order to survive and improve their economies and the lives of their citizens, cities do need to grow."

Indeed they do. But aside from the civic responsibility of improving the lives of their residents, it is important to remember that, first and foremost, a city is a business. And a business needs income--tax revenues in the case of the municipalities.

The most damning evidence of agriculture's threatened future can be found in another fact sheet that Eadie offers up regarding the proposed Riverside annexation. In its present agricultural use, it brings about $3.5 million in revenues. Built out for industrial use, the city has figured, the same acreage, will bring in revenues of almost $600 million. Those numbers leave little doubt which direction will enrich the city's coffers.

Yet revenues from factories pale in comparison to what sales-tax- rich ventures like the recently begun Overlook shopping center--with a proposed Target, Staples and Safeway--will bring to the cash-starved town. That leads to another concern for many who have studied the city's urban growth plans.

David Runsten is an agricultural economist with UCLA who lived in Watsonville for two years to study agriculture and farmworker issues in California and Mexico. He doubts that the city will actually bring in factories and light industry. "Everybody wants shopping malls because that's where the sales tax [revenue] is," says Runsten. "They say they want factories so they can pave over the farmland."

Farmer Dick Peixoto (pronounced "puh-shoat") echoes Runsten's perception. Peixoto has been farming the Pajaro Valley for 22 years, and three of his fields are part of the proposed Riverside annexation. "The city keeps dreaming," he says. "It has nothing to offer a light industry. Look at the whole situation--Watsonville has high rent and a high purchase price. Factories and light industry can go 15 or 20 miles away [to Hollister] and get land cost at half the price."

Then there's location. "Hollister's on [Highway] 101--a direct shot to San Jose," Peixoto adds. "Over here, we're stuck in a hole."

When asked, Eadie says "many" companies have been interested in locating in Watsonville, but he is vague on the names, citing confidentiality.

Yes, confirms Sergio Parra, who works with Watsonville's Housing and Economic Development, his office has had "lots" of requests for information about relocating to his city. However, those requests are in response to dozens of ads that constantly run in industry-targeted magazines throughout the country. Requests for packets of information may be a far cry from being ready to sign on the dotted line.

"Their attitude is 'If we build it, they will come,' " says a frustrated Peixoto. "I've gone to a few planning meetings, but they have their mind set." And if the city can't find industry to locate on the newly annexed parcels, it may well choose to rezone for commercial ventures like strip malls and auto rows.

Runsten sees both the proposed industrial park on the Riverside property and the 1,800 housing units on the Tai property as Trojan horses for enriching the city tax base. "What happens is they build housing, which always costs more than the city gets in tax revenue in the long run," explains Runsten. "So you have to build shopping centers--that's where the real tax revenue is. That's how the municipal financing is done now." To achieve that goal, the economist says, "the city plays fast and loose with numbers."

A 28 Percent Solution

LIKE THE OFT-REPEATED 28 percent unemployment figure, for example. Eric Alexander, a research analyst for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cautions that about a third of the city's available workforce is employed seasonally. "Those [unemployment] figures are average for a farm town," he notes. The closing of the canneries had an impact, he admits, but Alexander says there's a reason the low-skill jobs abandoned the valley: "We're shifting toward knowledge-based jobs."

Alexander's theory is that if Watsonville tried to entice the kind of jobs that matched its largely unskilled and uneducated unemployed workforce, the company would face the same problems that eventually drove canneries away--high labor costs, high rents, high land prices.

Alexander sympathizes with the town's dilemma. "I'm not struck that this is a typical political issue," he muses. "It's not 'How do we get rich?' but 'How do we help our constituency get not poor?' "

The expansion of ag land that Eadie cited was news to Rick Bergman, deputy agricultural commissioner for the California Agricultural Commissioner's Office. He agrees that "there has been some new farmland opened up, but in my opinion, some of that should have never been farmed. Those farmers have gone bankrupt and it's no wonder." As to Eadie's figure of 1,500 more acres since 1984, Bergman replies dubiously, "I've been here 17 years and I'd sure like to see a map of where that has come from."

Repeating Runsten's warnings, Bergman adds, "I think people are playing a numbers game. If you can show that prime farmland is growing, it shows there is not the crying need for farmland that those who oppose development say there is."

Just as Alexander has provided some insight into the first half of Watsonville's sacred mantra--jobs and housing, jobs and housing--Runsten questions whether housing will offer the healing balm to the city's ills. He is concerned that Watsonville has never addressed why it is overcrowded. "All farm towns are overcrowded. Why do people overcrowd? To save money," he says. "If you build more housing, it won't solve the overcrowding. What's interesting to me is the rents are very high in Watsonville, which allow people to overcrowd."

Runsten adds that most farm towns suffer from overcrowding due to a large--and usually underreported--single male Latino population. "But none of these things are discussed," he says. "They just say if houses are built, then people will magically be uncrowded."

Runsten also questions the basic premise that overcrowding leads to crime: "It flies in the face of reason that a large urban area is going to have less crime than a small rural town," he says.

Watsonville activist Frank Bardacke has long been a proponent of alternative use for the airport land. He has also pushed for developing vacant spots within the city limits, but with little success. "[The city council] says they'll have to study [the idea of infill]," complains Bardacke. "But they still haven't finished the study and they'll get the annexation done before the study."

Bardacke is convinced the Latinos are being used as pawns in this struggle for urban growth. "They use the interests of the Mexican people to sell their expansionist real estate plans," Bardacke charges. "So, blame the controversy on the environmentalists, and make it sound like expansion is in the best interest of Mexicans."

Runsten is also a bit uncomfortable with the paternalistic attitude of the annexation forces toward the city's Latino residents. "They want to develop and the poor Latinos are their excuse," he says.

Yet a conversation with Mayor Al Alcala reveals an impassioned concern for his largely Latino constituency. He quotes that magic unemployment figure again--28 percent--and cites the 3,555 new jobs the city estimates will result from the new industrial development. "Unfortunately, the people who should have a voice can't have a voice," he says. "They're agricultural workers who are card holders, not citizens." He barely reins in thinly veiled contempt for "the citizens--the environmentalists." They come to his city council meetings, but where are they from? "They're from Aptos, Corralitos, La Selva--they have no business telling us what to do."

As the mayor says, "I have nothing against farms," but he makes clear that his focus is on the here and now. When asked if he is concerned about how his city's decision to pave over farmland will affect the environment and economy 50 or 100 years from now, Alcala laughs. "I'll be long gone by then. Right now, I'm just worried about the next 20 years."

Jim Gordon, who has worked with UC-Davis for the past 25 years on economic development for rural California, understands this. "People are not elected for their vision. They are elected so they can fix potholes and quiet barking dogs." Gordon also looks askance at some of the city planner's numbers and trends. He dismisses Eadie's theory that only 10 percent of the farmland will disappear in 200 years.

"That's a fictitious argument," he says bluntly. "Once you do one annexation for a development, the next person that comes in will say 'Why did you do it for them and not for me?' Then there becomes a tipping point where agriculture cannot survive--in fact, becomes a nuisance in that area."

Ring of Gunshots

IT'S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why a frustrated mayor and other Latino activists see this almost as a class and cultural struggle. A telling moment occurred recently when environmentalists, Tai company representatives and the members of Watsonville government met at the Tai property to study the proposal firsthand. Sam Earnshaw, a former farmer who has led the fight against annexation, stood by the rows of tatsoi, proudly extolling the virtues of farm life.

Latino planning commissioner Daniel Dodge could barely contain his anger as he jabbed a thumb at the gourmet lettuce purchased by upscale restaurants. "I never even heard of this stuff," he snapped at Earnshaw, who lives in Bonny Doon. "Now, how many shootings do you have by your house?"

Alcala, Eadie, Dodge--they must feel the pressure to come up with a solution--any solution--to help their city. Each gunshot that rings out in the night, each burial of another murdered child must surely agonize these men. For them, it is more than a headline to be read over breakfast--it is another nail in their troubled town's coffin. But those who fight the annexation wonder if Watsonville understands that its choices affect them, too.

As Runsten points out, "Once you start in an industrial development mode, it takes on its own momentum." Watsonville's assurances to the contrary, agriculture will never survive in the marketplace economy when it is pitted against industry, commercial ventures or housing.

"The only thing that will slow it down is the people of Santa Cruz County who believe it is more important than what the City of Watsonville wants," Runsten concludes. "The decision shouldn't be made by a few thousand people in a town."

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From the January 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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