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September 28, 2020

Commission denies alcohol license, urges council to reject propane facility

WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville Planning Commission at its Tuesday meeting rejected a gas station’s application for a beer and wine alcohol license and also recommended the City Council deny a permit for a proposed large propane storage facility.

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An Arco AM/PM convenience store currently being constructed adjacent to the Hampton Inn & Suites at 75 Lee Road scored highly on the City’s so-called “alcohol-related uses rubric,” which measures applicants on their business and safety and security plans, among other things. But the commission was split on the item and voted 3-3. It needed four votes to pass.

Commissioners Ed Acosta, Jenny Sarmiento and Veronica Dorantes-Pulido voted “no.” Because the District 2 commissioner seat currently sits vacant, a seventh and deciding vote was not cast.

“Juggy” Tut, whose J&H Retail LLC is constructing the 112-room, four-story Hampton Inn & Suites, an adjoining drive-thru Starbucks, three future restaurant sites and three future retail shops at the Lee Road location, was the applicant for the alcohol license.

Hampton Inn watsonville
Photo by Tarmo Hannula

The commission at its July meeting approved a beer, wine and distilled spirits alcohol license for the hotel.

The decision can be appealed to the council, which can overrule the commission.

The commission was not split on its second item of the night. It unanimously recommended the council deny a proposed 170,000-gallon propane storage facility at 950 West Beach St.

The item was originally on the commission’s July agenda but City staff postponed the decision because an adjacent property owner did not receive timely notice of the meeting, Watsonville Community Development Director Suzi Merriam said.

The project would reshape a vacant 0.7-acre lot by installing a new railcar unloading tower and two new tank unloading stations. It would also refurbish and move an already existing 50,000-gallon propane tank. The project has the potential to add four additional 30,000-gallon propane tanks.

Richard Kojak of Mountain Propane Service in Felton owns the property and is leading the project.

The project qualifies for an infill (Class 32) exemption from provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act, meaning it does not require additional environmental review as long as the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality or water quality.

That designation drew the ire of dozens of community members who in the weeks leading up to Tuesday and during the public comment portion of the meeting called for a complete environmental impact report.

Those in opposition included George Ow Jr., a major local real estate developer and philanthropist, and Consuelo Alba, the executive director and co-founder of the Watsonville Film Festival. Both wrote lengthy letters of opposition saying that the facility would not only endanger the adjacent businesses but also the nearby homes, schools and the slough along Ohlone Parkway and Walker Street.

“This is a dangerous project in an already disadvantaged community. What other city in Santa Cruz County would approve such a risky project so close to its downtown? This is another example of environmental racism,” Alba wrote in her letter.

The facility would be 300 feet away from a manufacturing plant that produces approximately 65,000 gallons of biodiesel a day. That, according to the prepared staff report, “raises concerns.”

“Its proximity to the project site presents a potential safety hazard. In the case of an accidental release from or failure of the proposed propane storage tank(s) that results in a fire or explosion, this, in turn, might result in a larger and more catastrophic fire and property damage and/or loss of life were it to spread to the nearby biodiesel plant,” the staff report reads.

But Kojak said those concerns are overblown, and that explosions at propane facilities are rare thanks to the advances in preventative technology.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year reported seven workplace accidents related to propane. In four of those accidents, a fatality was recorded, though only two of those deaths were related to explosions.

Kojak called the location a “perfect” site because of its access to the rail line, which will make propane delivery much easier and take a handful of trucks currently used to transport propane off the road. He also said he plans to switch over to the “eco-friendly” biopropane when that it is commercially available.

“We care about safety, we care about the community, and we want to be good neighbors,” Kojak said.

Those statements did little to sway the commission.

“If I was [on the council] I would vote ‘no,’ and the reason I’m voting ‘no’ is best summed up by George Ow… We have a stark choice: protect our people of Watsonville or protect special interests,” Acosta said. “I’m listening and I’m going to vote on behalf of the people in our community by voting ‘no.’”

Tony Nuñez
Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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