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Annexing Eden

[whitespace] Pat McCormick George Sakkestad

No Laughing Matter: LAFCO head Pat McCormick plays Solomon, recommending between preserving farmland and creating jobs.

The Pajaro Valley has a growing climate second to none. Now Watsonville city officials want to improve the business climate as well--but they'll have to sacrifice some of the world's most productive farmland to do it.

By John Yewell

HE SAYS HE WAITED for "an epiphany that never came." By the time Patrick McCormick fell off the fence and wrote his recommendation in favor of the proposal, it was so full of caveats that it could be read as an indictment.

As the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), it was McCormick's task to study the proposed annexation of 94 acres of prime farmland--known as the Manabe-Burgstrom property, after the owners of its principal parcels--by the city of Watsonville. On July 29, the seven-member board will hear public testimony and perhaps vote, and McCormick's July 12 report will be Exhibit A.

"I don't usually lose sleep over a recommendation," says McCormick, who's been on the job for 19 years. "This time I did."

LAFCO is a kind of jurisdictional traffic cop, deciding on boundaries between local agencies and units of government, with annexation decisions its bread and butter. At issue in this case is the desire of Watsonville city officials to expand their universe, to make available large parcels of land for an industrial park that they hope will generate good jobs for a city trying to diversify its agriculture-dependent economy.

Benefit of the Doubt

DRIVING SOUTH on Highway 1, you'll pass the property on the left for roughly half a mile, midway between the Harkins Slough Road offramp and Riverside Drive. The rich brown farmland proposed for annexation area is a boomerang-shaped collection of farmlands and wetlands bounded on the west by Highway 1, on the south by the Southern Pacific tracks and on the north and east by the area known as the Landmark property. It is virtually surrounded by the Watsonville city limits.

Annexation opponents such as Sam Earnshaw, coordinator of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers, mobilized to stop the disappearance of what Earnshaw calls "some of the best farmland in the world." Annexation proponents have sought to reassure LAFCO that they are serious about creating jobs--although no one is quite clear what kinds of jobs those would be.

There are reasons to be skeptical. The Watsonville City Council broke a commitment before, when it allowed the developer of what is known as the Overlook shopping center on Main Street to cancel a planned housing development in favor of a shopping center, with a Target, Staples and other chain retail stores. Critics accused the council of sacrificing much-needed housing in favor of sales tax revenue without generating living-wage jobs--a criticism McCormick says is valid.

Despite his own reservations, McCormick says he decided to side with the city.

"I'm willing to give the city the benefit of the doubt," he says. "We'll see how a majority of the [LAFCO] commissioners feel about it. I have expectations that the city won't blow it."

But he expects commission members to struggle with their decisions as he did.

"A lot of this is based on faith," McCormick says. "I had big doubts and still do."

Veiled Threat

McCORMICK'S reservations are indeed substantial, and they come through in his report.
His 13-page analysis plus attachments demonstrates how the "Industrial Park" zoning for the annexation may prove to be a fig leaf.

If the annexed area fails to attract industrial development--as was the case with the adjacent Landmark property--McCormick writes that the property "will be used for development different than the industrial uses for which the application was made." But at that point it may be too late for anyone, certainly for LAFCO, to reverse the development process and the farmland would be lost.

Opponents charge--correctly, according to McCormick--that because the property is also subject to a "Planned Development" overlay, the zoning designation is meaningless. With a PD overlay, a "specific plan" must be developed for the property after annexation which can call for any use that is consistent with the 1994 general plan--and that specifically allows retail in the area. If that happens, McCormick writes in his recommendation, the property would not provide "the immediate job opportunities that balance the loss of prime agricultural land."

Calling the recommendation for urbanization of such prime ag land "rare," McCormick cautions the City Council against yielding to the temptation to turn the property into another collection of box stores. If the annexation is approved, he writes, the council would "be well advised to make use of this land for industrial uses with a high density of employment, even if the absorption rate for new industries on the site is slower than anticipated."

That is a thinly veiled threat. If the city doesn't show patience and make good on its commitment to jobs in this case, McCormick says, "the next time they ask they might have trouble" winning annexation approval. Yet historically, LAFCO has approved the vast majority of Watsonville's annexation applications.

Watsonville officials have been open about their interest in coming back for more. The general plan, adopted in 1994, calls on the city to "pursue annexation of undeveloped and underdeveloped land"--usually meaning prime ag land.

"There will be more strategic annexations as Watsonville's population grows," confirms city manager Carlos Palacios, one of the annexation's biggest boosters.

A "sphere of influence" line encircling Watsonville, approved by LAFCO in 1997, defines the limits of future annexation and could ultimately double the city's current size.

Hoop Nightmare

THE ANNEXATION REQUEST represents a classic clash of visions. The county's general plan--thanks in part to the 1978 passage of the anti-growth Measure J--requires the county to "maintain for exclusive agricultural use those lands identified on the County Agricultural Resources Map as best suited to the commercial production of food," and "to resolve policy conflicts in favor of preserving and promoting agriculture on designated commercial agricultural lands."

For the man in the middle, it shapes up as a struggle for the soul and future of the Pajaro Valley--and the arguments are familiar: Jobs vs. farming; development vs. quality of life.

McCormick cites the Westridge business park north of the annexation off Harkins Slough Road as a success he hopes the Manabe-Burgstrom property can duplicate.

But critics charge that LAFCO should have driven a harder bargain.

Environmental attorney Bill Parkin suggests that the city should be required to dump the Planned Development overlay. At least then, if the city wanted to break its commitment to industrial jobs, it would have to change the zoning--which could make it vulnerable to a citizens' referendum.

"There needs to be a solid commitment to do industrial development," Parkin says.

Chris Lyons, a member of the Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley Farmland and Wetlands, agrees that LAFCO may be missing an opportunity.

"LAFCO should require more specific planning information in advance to meet employment needs, [to make sure] that there will be living-wage jobs, and how many," Lyons says.

McCormick admits that LAFCO could have pressed the city for a better deal, such as requiring that the Specific Plan be written before annexation was approved. But he adds that there would be nothing to prevent the city from changing the plan after approval. Still, says Parkin, at least that would have created a dangerous political hoop for the City Council to have to jump through.

Boxed In

PROJECT OPPONENTS hammer home this point: that the city has offered no assurances that the proposed industrial park won't morph into box stores, despite the sometimes heated insistence by the Watsonville power structure that the purpose of the annexation is to create good jobs for the city's seasonally unemployed. Still, rumors abound that a Home Depot, proposed for 41st Avenue at Soquel Drive, might locate in Watsonville if given a chance.

"This is just real estate speculation, nothing more," says Parkin, who sued unsuccessfully to stop the Overlook project. "The city is using jobs as a pawn, but there is no commitment in the general plan, or in the city, or by the landowners to create an industrial park."

McCormick doesn't disagree.

"The concern that commercial uses"--read retail--"may occur is a valid one," says McCormick. Even the Home Depot rumor, he says, "may be true." Palacios agrees that retail remains a possibility, and says that "the reality is that cities are dependent on sales taxes."

Palacios cites an agreement with the county that is supposed to be a disincentive to creating another retail center: the city must split 50-50 with the county any sales taxes over $300,000 a year generated by businesses on the annexed property. But Palacios admits that "any big-box store will bring in more taxes than industrial uses."

The point, Palacios continues, is that a lack of large parcels within the city limits creates a difficult real estate market for job creation, because there aren't enough developable large parcels.

It is on this point that McCormick appears to fall off the fence.

"The recommendation for approval is based upon the limited supply of vacant large industrial sites within the Pajaro Valley," he writes, "and upon the expressed commitment of the current City Council and staff to make every effort to utilize the site to diversify the local economy by providing industrial development."

The Race Card

McCORMICK SAYS he shares the concerns of many that the kinds of skilled jobs envisioned for the area may have a Catch-22: The jobs might not match the work force the City Council is trying to help, with the result that the city employment picture will not improve. According to several sources, despite high unemployment, Watsonville already has as many jobs as it has workers, but more than half of those jobs are held by people who commute.

"That's a real central issue in the dilemma I had," McCormick says. "There will be a number of Latinos that will get better jobs, but there will also be a lot of people from Aptos and Corralitos. Who will benefit? It's hard to simplify using ethnicity to keep score."

But ethnicity is being used in the debate, and the result has been that a subtle racial undertone has emerged.

The primarily Latino annexation proponents say environmental activists from outside Watsonville are meddling in Watsonville's affairs to the detriment of poor farm workers. But much of the opposition comes from Pajaro Valley farmers and local slow-growth groups such as the Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley. At the same time, proponents have not shied away from accepting the support of the Santa Cruz County Business Council.

Meanwhile, one anti-annexation pamphlet, trying to draw attention to the relative affluence and real estate connections of some Watsonville Latino leaders (such as county Supervisor Tony Campos), cautions LAFCO not to be "misled into thinking that Latino real estate agents speak for all Latino residents of Watsonville."

As the race card gets played, Pat McCormick believes it provides some context for the debate.

"It's real politics," McCormick says, a certain detachment in his voice. "It's one of the major themes of the latter part of the 20th century here--the empowerment of the Latino community in Watsonville."

While the present annexation issue predates the current majority on the City Council, McCormick believes that as Watsonville Latinos gain control over their destiny, their issues--and politics--are diversifying.

"Now that they're in power, we're seeing a maturation in their politics," McCormick says. "They're not monolithic on how to address problems."

Annexation of the Manabe-Burgstrom property, if approved, would provide Watsonville's new political powers with a test of their ability to follow through on years of talk about hopes, dreams--and jobs.

"I looked at it and said: Watsonville should have a chance to pull it off," McCormick says.

But if they fail, "some of the best farmland in the world" will be lost.

The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) will take public testimony on the proposal July 29 at 7:30pm, Alianza School, 440 Arthur Road, Watsonville.

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From the July 28-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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