WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council at its Tuesday meeting declared 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.”
The declaration gives the City the right to remove the people 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 at 1702 Freedom Blvd.
The move was approved unanimously by the City Council as part of its consent agenda, a portion of public meetings that typically contain items expected to pass without much discussion by the agency in question.
John and Laura Adams have owned the property 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 closed its doors in late August.
Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra said that the City met with representatives from the Adams’ family and Transformco last week, 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 neighborhoods behind the property say the people camped behind the Kmart building threw used needles into their backyards and that they 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 on Oct. 8. “This is something that we’re going to have to solve now, or it’s just going to get worse.”
The City says the lessee and property owners agreed to clear out the back of the business, put up fencing and barricades around the property, install cameras and hire a 24-hour security guard.
But the City Council followed through on the declaration because, according to City Attorney Alan Smith, some of the terms in the agreement had not been met before Tuesday’s meeting.
The item will return to the council at its Oct. 26 meeting if the lessee and property owners do not fulfill the agreement.
City leaders said they did not know if any prospective businesses had yet struck a deal with the property owner, but emphasized that they would have very little, if any, say in what ultimately happens with that building.
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,” 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 officials to break up a campsite.
Dutra said on Oct. 8 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.”
A woman who said she was unhoused spoke during the City Council meeting and asked the City to have compassion for people in her situation. She also said that there needs to be more resources for people who are experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet. Dutra offered to connect her with the services available in Watsonville, including the recently opened Grace Harbor Women’s Center, which offers roughly 90 beds to homeless and at-risk women, including those with children.
“OK,” the woman responded, “but it would also be really nice to see a wider solution to the problem other than just telling us to move somewhere else.”