WATSONVILLE—City of Watsonville staff at Tuesday’s meeting will ask the Watsonville City Council to declare the vacant Kmart property a public nuisance, citing “illegal camping, lack of sanitation, inoperable or abandoned vehicles, excessive noise,” and a “violation of the City’s zoning laws.”
If the City Council moves forward with the declaration, the City would have the right to remove the people currently living behind the vacant Kmart building—and all of the cars, trailers and tents there, too—if the owner or lessee do not do so before Oct. 25. The City would pay for the abatement by placing a lien on the property.
John and Laura Adams have owned the property at 1702 Freedom Blvd. for decades, and City staff believes the current tenant is Transform SR Brands LLC, a Delaware-based limited liability company doing business as Transformco, sometimes referred to as “New Sears.”
The Watsonville Kmart location officially closed its doors in late August.
Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra said that the City met with representatives from the Adams’ family and Transformco on Thursday, and came to an agreement that the City hopes will solve some of the concerns he says he has received from nearby residents and businesses.
Residents living in the neighborhood behind the property say the people currently camped behind the Kmart building have thrown used needles into their backyards and that they’ve heard fights throughout the night, Dutra says. Business owners have also lodged complaints to the city about several broken-down cars and trailers setting up camp in the parking lot shared with Jack in the Box, Walgreens Pharmacy, Taqueria Mi Tierra and several other businesses.
“It’s becoming its own little city on that property,” Dutra said. “This is something that we’re going to have to solve now, or it’s just going to get worse.”
According to Dutra, the lessee and property owners agreed to clear out the back of the business, put up fencing and barricades around the property and hire a 24-hour security guard. But the decision to deem the property a public nuisance is still expected to come to the City Council Tuesday.
In order for the City Council to declare something a public nuisance, it must be “injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses, an obstruction to the free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use in the customary manner of any stream, public park, square, street, highway, or alley of the City,” according to the City’s municipal code.
Outright bans on outdoor camping have been largely prohibited across the U.S. since the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that outdoor public camping cannot be criminalized unless the individuals are given an alternative shelter option. But the same protections determined in that case, Martin vs. Boise, do not apply for people camping on private property if the owner asks law enforcement or city officials to break up a campsite, Watsonville Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides said.
Dutra said the decision to break up the campsite behind Kmart is not an easy one. He said he understands that there are individuals that are struggling to find housing on the pricey Central Coast, but there are also other issues deeply rooted in the homelessness crisis that have made their way to Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city.
“This has moved on beyond housing. Housing alone is not going to solve this problem,” he said. “We’re dealing with addiction, we’re dealing with mental health situations, and we’re dealing with, in some situations, a mix of both … but the [residents] living behind that fence shouldn’t have to deal with this. The needles. The fights.”