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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Future Imperfect : Watsonville Councilman Edward Din says the Atkinson Lane development will put too great a burden on the city.

Watsonville On The Edge

The most important community in South Santa Cruz County this election year doesn't even exist yet.

By Jessica Lussenhop

On a cloudless Saturday morning in October, Edward Din, Watsonville's incumbent District 6 City Councilman, drives slowly down Atkinson Lane, a three-block dead-end street at the eastern edge of the city's toniest neighborhood. On either side of the car, signs riddle the yards of the modest, tidy houses in support of either Din or his closest rival, Emilio Martinez. Just beyond the rooftops, a 65-acre tract of land dips down into a little valley, yellow with hay and dotted with trees in the middle where a pond lies. To make a point, Din pretends he's just pulled out of the field, an unincorporated piece of land the county is poised to rezone for high-density housing--and arguably the most hotly contested issue in Watsonville this year.

"Imagine," he says, "you're going to have to take your kids to school. You're living over here in high density"--he raises his hands from the steering wheel in quotation marks--"'affordable' housing. This is your access road." Continuing down the narrow two-lane road, he comes to a T-intersection. Up ahead is busy Freedom Boulevard, a main arterial. But the road signs do not permit a left turn onto Freedom, so Din opts to do what he says most Atkinson Lane residents will do, which is to take a tiny street one block over with a traffic light at Freedom. "They're scared," he says of his constituents. "There's going to be all this traffic on Atkinson, coming right out here."

After a short drive to the other side of the Atkinson Lane plot, Din cruises down Brewington, another street that will also serve as an access point to the development, and gets out of the car.

"There's more graffiti on the other side of this wall than you can believe," he says as he enters the undeveloped portion of land, tromping through the dirt clods. Indeed, the other side is filled in solid with graffiti, but the Brewington street wall also hides the view of the rolling hills to the east and the workers picking berries on nearby agricultural land. Westward are the multilevel homes that give District 6 its affluent, hoity-toity reputation.

"These are wetlands here. I'd like to see that preserved," says Din. "I don't think this is a good place. It's too small. Where are these kids going to go to school?"

Atkinson, which is in truth a beautiful piece of property, has become a dirty word in South County, a source of vitriolic debate in a City Council election with three seats out of seven in play. When Santa Cruz County came up short 30 acres to meet its June 2009 state-mandated housing requirement deadline, it chose Atkinson's roughly 11 acres, abutting Watsonville's city limits, for rezoning. Plans under review call for between 500 and 600 units.

Though Watsonville voters passed Measure U in 2002, designating this area as a site for annexing and future housing, residents were up in arms over the county taking decisions away from the city. Watsonville's council opted to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the county, creating a joint planning process that Din says ensured Watsonville's opinions would be considered. That's where the trouble started in District 6.

"Edward Din was the first to motion for the agreement with the county and Atkinson, and that's what angered me, and that's why I decided to run," says Emilio Martinez, a tall, talkative, self-employed private investigator who says that without the MOU, progress on the rezoning could have been halted. "Did he see all the problems? It's a terrible idea."

Tony Gomez, who seems at this point to be the district's long-shot candidate, says that he has opposed Atkinson from the beginning and points to a high-density development called Vista Montana. "It's rat-infested, people have dogs, they leave dog food out. They have chronic problems with that development site. Multiply that by 1 1/2 times," he says. "Their fire trucks can't get down the streets. That's where this is heading."

Gomez, Din and Martinez all point out that while the county can rezone the land at its own discretion, it will be Watsonville's job to provide the infrastructure--the water, roads, sewage, schools, police and fire personnel--which it already struggles to do for its existing 50,000 population.

Atkinson isn't the only part of Watsonville feeling growing pains. Measure U also designated a parcel known as the Buena Vista site, adjacent to the Watsonville airport, as ideal for more housing. While the 2,250 homes and retail space on 465 acres dwarf the size of the Atkinson project, interested parties may be looking for the candidates' stance on Atkinson as an indication of how they will vote on Buena Vista issues. Watsonville pilots have argued that the development is the first step in crowding out the airport, eventually leading to its closure. Avid pilots Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman donated an unprecedented $6,000 to both anti-Atkinson candidates Gabriel Gonzalez and Joe Ortiz, from Districts 1 and 2, respectively--sums the city has never seen in an election before.

'They Want Zero Houses'
With all three candidates in District 6 opposed to Atkinson Lane, the real drama lies in Districts 1 and 2, where in each case a progressive is running against a conservative candidate. District 1 incumbent Manuel Quintero Bersamin, who is for the housing plans at Atkinson, is defending his seat against Gonzalez, a conservative who works in real estate. Luis Alejo, a young Harvard-educated progressive, is vying with Ortiz, a retired carpenter, to replace Oscar Rios, who opted not to run again. Nov. 4 could potentially tip the balance of power in Watsonville from progressive to conservative should either Bersamin or Alejo lose.

"Voters in District 1 and 2 need to know how this will affect them," says Din. "If they're concerned about traffic, about water, about public safety, they should vote to elect candidates that are opposed to this project."

Bersamin says the District 6 representatives and residents are simply camouflaging NIMBYism by pointing out infrastructure problems.

"We at least need to be talking about a project. They want zero houses, they don't want us to talk about it anymore," he says. Bersamin feels the rezoning must take place in order to someday provide stable housing for the low-income farmworkers, teachers, police and firefighters who are struggling in a market with so little availability. "It's not really a political issue to me, it's more, how can I get these kids of strawberry workers out of these apartments and into a home with a yard. With a white picket fence and all that."

Alejo agrees that, while building in the depressed housing market is probably not prudent, he will support a high-density project in the future.

"Maybe right now is not the best time to build--there's a lot of houses on the market. It's going to be different five years down the road," he says. "I want to make it so people who were born and raised here can continue to live here."

Both conservative candidates Gonzalez and Ortiz want to halt progress on Atkinson and agree with District 6 candidates about the infrastructure problems. They would rather focus on bringing more jobs to Watsonville and building a sports complex. They think the city's hundreds of foreclosed homes could be filled with low-income renters.

"With the foreclosure crisis, I think we need to come up with creative ideas to help get people in these houses," says Gonzalez. "I wouldn't change my mind on Atkinson how it is right now. We have things that are more important that the city needs to do."

Atkinson's environmental review is moving forward and estimated to be complete in December, after which additional community input will be allowed--so a groundbreaking ceremony is nowhere in sight. But with the residents looking to Atkinson for cues on how to vote this November, people like Bersamin say the project has implications beyond those 65 acres. He points to the Adelmans' hefty campaign donations to his opponent and Joe Ortiz.

"They're watching to see how the city handles Atkinson as a template for how they would handle Buena Vista," he says. "They really want to shape the city's growth policy because they want to protect the airport. That's really the definition of special interest."

He adds, "That actually makes me more determined to win."

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