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May 30, 2023

Ceiba charter school, city face lawsuit

Neighbors say zoning changes, special use permit were improper

A group of Watsonville residents who live near Ceiba College Preparatory Academy have filed a lawsuit against the school, the City of Watsonville and the company that owns the land.

The lawsuit states that the City Council erred in February when it approved a zoning change, a special use permit and an update to the General Plan that will allow the school to stay in its 215 Locust St. location.

Marta Buliach, who owns property near the school, filed the petition on April 5 in Santa Cruz County Superior Court along with Watsonville Environmental Safety Traffic Industrial Alliance (WESTIA).

The City Council approved the changes 4-3 on Feb. 28. That vote, which followed more than five hours of public discussion, came despite the item failing to garner enough votes by the Watsonville Planning Commission in April 2022.

Bulaich says the city neither completed an environmental impact report, which is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), nor adopted a negative declaration. 

Additionally, the approved project included only the existing school, and not plans to expand by adding a gymnasium on recently purchased properties across the street at 228 and 234 Locust Street.

“That was never done, and is an egregious violation of state law,” Bulaich says. “The City and Ceiba have revealed plans to expand well beyond the school’s current location. Under CEQA, the whole of an action must be considered and a project cannot be piecemealed or divided into separate portions to avoid an environmental review of the whole.”

Had Ceiba and the city done so, it would have disclosed that the project has significant environmental impacts, and as such would not have been approved, the lawsuit states. 

Attorney Gregory Klingsporn, who is representing Ceiba, says that the environmental review only needed to include the existing school. The new property, he says, was only conceptual. 

“Generally speaking, you don’t have to include a project that’s not yet a project,” Klingsporn says. 

Buliach, and other neighbors, say they have been contending with heavy traffic during drop-off and pickup times. 

Most concerning, Bulaich says, is that the school is incompatible with the industrial neighborhood, and that the city disregarded its own zoning code.

“Heavy industrial zoning allows the largest use of hazardous situations,” she says. “Children’s school zoning allows the least. Placing a children’s school in an industrial zone defeats the purpose of having a zoning code in the first place.”  

The lawsuit also names Watsonville City Councilman Jimmy Dutra, alleging that he told Ceiba Head of School Josh Ripp he would vote in favor of the zoning changes before the meeting.

Dutra says he stands by his vote.

“Targeting to silence our representatives or nullify their vote because they don’t support one’s position only jeopardizes the democracy we have been defending for so many years,” he says. “I have never been one to surrender to positions I feel are not in the best interest of our community. I will always do what’s right for Watsonville whether it’s funding our seniors and their programs or protecting our youth and their places of education.”

Bulaich says she wants to see the council approvals set aside, and full environmental review completed.

Should that environmental review come out in favor of the school, Bulaich says that “all available legal options will be considered and possibly utilized.”

But she says that the school has not met several of the 55 conditions imposed under the special use permit approved by the city.

Among these conditions are improving its outreach to the community, creating an online community complaint form, keeping a detailed log of the complaints, training crossing guards and bolstering its safe routes for schools program.

In an email, Ripp says that the school has fully completed 39 of the conditions and partially completed five.

He says that the school will continue to listen to and address the concerns of its neighbors, “to ensure our school has a positive impact on our local Locust and Second Street community.”

“Ceiba is proud that we can continue to provide a college preparatory education to the Watsonville community as a result of the city council’s zoning decision,” Ripp wrote.


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