Watsonville leaders have wrestled with development at its city limits and how much land to set aside for agriculture. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

WATSONVILLE >> Watsonville voters in November will weigh two ballot measures that help guide where new housing, shops, parks and other development could be built near the city limits.

Some boundaries of agricultural land near the city’s borders are set to expire in November and in 2027. Two competing measures expected on the Nov. 8 ballot will decide how to handle those expirations and what areas can be developed.

  • The first measure, an amendment to the 2002 voter-approved Measure U, would extend agricultural land protections until the year 2040. A community group called the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection gathered more than 2,400 valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot. 
  • A “counter measure” that is being drafted by city staff would extend those protections until 2040 and give future Watsonville City Council members chances to identify areas for potential development during the city’s General Plan update. Residents could weigh in on those city council decisions.

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Both measures broadly create a vision for Watsonville’s growth, said new Watsonville City Manager René Mendez. A major difference is that the counter measure would allow the city council to move the urban limit line to allow for development and “create a process for growth,” Mendez said.

“It doesn’t mean that the city can just grow — it means we have to follow the General Plan and all the processes and procedures,” Mendez said. “It’s very challenging and difficult to grow, but this would just eliminate the boundary.”

Areas in green show an urban limit line that started in 2002 and is set to expire in November. Areas in orange are set to expire in November 2027. Areas in red are wetlands that will not be developed based on agreements between the city and landowners. (City of Watsonville)

The Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection has pushed for agricultural land protections since 2018. They spoke with city council members and the previous city manager, Matt Huffaker. 

“There are many vacant and underutilized lots within city limits — this is a major category for the city’s housing element,” said Sam Earnshaw in a March 8 city council meeting before the council’s initial vote on the ballot initiative. Earnshaw is a member of the committee and operator of the agricultural business Hedgerows Unlimited.  “Saving our agricultural lands is what this initiative is about.”

Earnshaw said, “People of Watsonville don’t want to see their valuable coastal farmlands turned into San Jose.”

The Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection found 174 addresses for vacant lots and underutilized spaces in Watsonville. In an interview this week, Earnshaw said the city’s Planning Department and developers are doing great work, but it’s the city council who has “their heads in the sand.” He said the Downtown Specific Plan includes areas that could accommodate about 3,900 housing units downtown.

“Trying to take farmland to build single-family housing is absurd — no one can afford that,” he said. “This is not going to solve anything — can anybody name one place where sprawling out on farmland for development has actually worked?”

Like most California cities, Watsonville already has a challenge of meeting requirements for housing development over the next eight years. According to the AMBAG’s draft regional housing plan, Watsonville must plan or build 2,053 homes from 2023 through 2031

Development limits

Debates about where to develop in Watsonville are decades old. In November 2002, Watsonville voters approved the original Measure U with about 60% of the vote. It set an “urban limit line” that separated agricultural land from land that could be developed on the city’s borders.

There are three main sections of the urban limit line. 

  • Areas for agriculture set to expire in November.
  • Areas for agriculture set to expire in 2027. 
  • Other areas where city agreements do not allow development. 

In June 2021, Amy Newell, Betty Bobeda and Peter Navarro filed a notice of intent with the city that aimed to amend the city’s General Plan and urban limit line through 2040. The Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection submitted required signatures for the November 2022 ballot.

This year, city council members worked with the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection to change the group’s ballot initiative to allow for development at 320 Lee Road. However, at the July 7 council meeting, Watsonville City Council could not agree on the settlement for the 13.6 acre parcel, denying the plan 3-4.

The council agreed to have city staff draft a counter measure for the Nov. 8 ballot — unless a new agreement is reached with the community group. Aug. 12 is the deadline to put measures on the November ballot. 

City staff also proposed possible annexation sites in the counter measure during the July 7 council meeting. Those sites include:

  • A 77-acre property near Wagner and East Lake avenues. Watsonville planners said the land could accommodate at least 860 housing units. 
  • Areas of Freedom Boulevard for commercial development.
  • Areas of West Beach Street for commercial development.

What does a “yes” vote mean on the Measure U amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot?

A yes vote means the city would keep the current urban line through 2040. Commercial or residential development could only be within those boundaries. 

What does a “no” vote mean on the Measure U amendment?

A no vote means that the parts of the urban limit line set to expire this November — outlined in green on the map above — would expire, said Watsonville Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides. Other parts of the urban limit line set to expire in 2027 should expire in 2027.

What does a “yes” vote mean on the counter measure?

A yes vote would mean the city could move forward with a slightly different plan, maintaining the urban limit line as it is now, but allow for development conversations through the 2050 General Plan. Through that process, the city could explore housing and commercial opportunities outside of the current boundaries.

“We will be able to engage the community and stakeholders across the board to plan together,” Vides said. “It’s through the General Plan conversation, that’s what’s very specific about it. It’s community input.”

What does a “no” vote mean for the counter measure?

If the counter measure does not pass but Measure U passes, the city would maintain the status quo, said Vides. The city would not be able to annex any new land for development.

“Development is not in our hands, we just provide the tools. Not having the urban limit line would give property owners the option to annex land to the city, but only if they’re interested in development,” Vides said.

If both measures fail, the urban limit line portion that expires in 2022 would expire and open development possibilities along that line. 

If both measures get more than 50% of the vote, the measure with the most votes wins, Watsonville’s city attorney said during the July 7 council meeting. 

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Grace Stetson is a Santa Cruz County freelance journalist who covers housing, homelessness and development. Stetson is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism master's program. Stetson has worked for Dateline NBC, Walt Disney Publishing Worldwide, Metro Silicon Valley, the Six Fifty, Good Times and Lookout Santa Cruz.