WATSONVILLE -- At a public forum Friday, Santa Cruz County officials slammed a Watsonville city councilman’s plan to pursue a ballot initiative to annex the 80-acre Sakata-Kett farmland.
Watsonville Councilman Daniel Dodge, who wasn’t at the meeting, is collecting signatures to put a ballot initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot. The initiative would seek to annex the Sakata-Kett property, located east of Highway 1 between West Beach Street and Riverside Drive. The area is best known for the old Redman-Hirahara House and huge strawberry fields.
Dodge has suggested in the past that the land could be good for a “big box” store such as Costco. A big-box store discussion dominated the meeting Friday morning at the Action Pajaro Valley nonprofit on Union Street.
“For me the Sakata-Kett annexation is a very bad idea,” Supervisor Ellen Pirie said. “If you want to see the final death knell of main street businesses, go open a big box store across the freeway.”
Dodge’s plan “seems like a nonstarter to me,” Pirie said, because the Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and wouldn’t approve it.
“It’s some of the best agriculture land in the country,” she said, which elicited an “amen” from someone in the crowd of 45.
Pirie also said she thinks the proposed initiative has a broader goal — “a bid to lessen the restrictions on Manabe-Ow.”
The Manabe-Ow Business Park is a 95-acre site located just east of Highway 1 near Ohlone Drive. Plans call for about 1 million square feet of tenant space for light industrial business, and another 30,000 square feet of retail space and 7.2 acres of workforce housing.
Since the city annexed the land in 2006, the Manabe-Ow Business Park has been seen by Watsonville leaders as a way to ease the burden of crushing unemployment rates and bring in tax revenue to the struggling city.
County Supervisor Greg Caput said the problem with a big-box store on the Sakata-Kett property is that it won’t help alleviate the blight in downtown Watsonville.
“Wal-Mart is a shark that eats up small business,” Caput said. “We have to protect what we have.”
Caput said Dodge’s plan also doesn’t fit with the area’s overall plan regarding business development, housing and infrastructure. “You have to have everything else in order. We have enough things on our plate that aren’t in order,” Caput said.
Watsonville City Manger Carlos Palacios said councilman Dodge has “thrown down the gauntlet to us,” regarding the proposed annexation.
“Dodge has basically said he’s not going to count on government,” Palacios said. “His idea is to go back to 1994.”
Dodge and Palacios were both part of the plan in the 90s to annex the land, which was rejected by LAFCO in 1997.
“Dodge’s point of view is we need to kick-start our economy … pick ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Palacios said. “That’s his idea and he’s going to put it to the voters.”
Monterey County Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who is passionate about water and flooding issues, compared the differences with putting a big retail store in Watsonville, as compared to Pajaro.
“If you’re going to do a big box, you’re going to do it in Watsonville,” Calcagno said. “That’s where the population is. If we were to put a big-box in Pajaro, and it flooded, can you imagine the lawsuits? The county doesn’t want to take the burden of the lawsuits.”
“Our legal people are very scared of letting people develop Pajaro because of the flooding,” he added.
At several times during the "Life After Redevelopment" panel discussion, Palacios lamented the loss of redevelopment funds from the state. One of the many things that loss affects is how much you can develop infrastructure and land and provide subsidies to new businesses.
“How do you make Manabe-Ow into a business park … on this former swamp?” Palacios said. “They used to call it a swamp when I first got here. Now they call it a slough,” he quipped.
Councilman Dodge is expected to turn in the required signatures soon for the ballot initiative. “It’s a good discussion to have,” Palacios said, adding that the Watsonville City Council is planning to have its own economic development forum within the next month or so.
Voter approval of the proposed initiative doesn’t mean Watsonville can or will annex the property, but it would give officials the authority to move forward with a proposal. LAFCO, the body that oversees annexations, gets the final say.
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