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July 1, 2022

Mayor casts lone ‘no’ vote in agreement for affordable housing project

WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council approved an agreement with the County of Santa Cruz on a proposed 80-unit affordable apartment complex that, if approved by the county supervisors, would break ground in early 2022.

MidPen Housing, a nonprofit developer, is leading the project between Atkinson Lane and Brewington Avenue on land in the unincorporated county near the city limits. It is the second phase of the Pippin Orchards development that was completed off Atkinson Lane in 2019.

The decision before the City Council Tuesday was not whether it would support the construction or not. The memorandum of understanding (MOU) only laid out which agency—the county or city—would be responsible for the services provided to the development and who would collect certain fees.

If approved by the county supervisors, the city, according to the MOU, would collect more than $1 million in impact fees in exchange for providing its services such as police, fire, water and solid waste. The MOU also states that the city would annex the property when completed.

The project, according to MidPen Director of Housing Development, Joanna Carmen, would also bring roughly $500,000 in fees to the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

County staff said the item will likely go before the supervisors on Dec. 7.

Of the 80 units, 39 of them would be deed-restricted to farmworker families, 37 would be filled through vouchers from the county’s Housing Authority and all of them would be listed between 30-60% of the area’s median income.

The majority of the council supported the project, but Mayor Jimmy Dutra, whose 6th District represents neighborhoods on both sides of the proposed construction, had several concerns about its development and cast the lone ‘no’ vote against the agreement.

He had apprehensions about the additional traffic flowing through Brewington Avenue, a sleepy neighborhood of mostly upscale, single-family homes, the small amphitheater planned for the center of the property and the ongoing costs to provide services to those residents, among other things.

Dutra said that a resident in the Brewington Avenue area has told him she would put her home up for sale if the project is approved.

“This is a really tough decision, to be really impacting the traffic in that area but I guess [it’s] what we live in now,” he said.

Plans to develop that area of the city into affordable housing date back more than a decade. Initial plans set by the county and city had set out to build hundreds of units on land currently used for farming adjacent to Brewington Avenue. But a lawsuit from the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and a subsequent settlement reached between that agency and the city in 2011 restricted the scope of the development area to only four parcels.

Two of those parcels were developed into the first phase of Pippin Orchards, and the third and fourth parcels would be used for this proposed development.

The project received a unanimous recommendation for approval from the county’s planning commission in late October.

If approved by the county supervisors in December, the project would be the third affordable housing development greenlit in the Atkinson Lane area, including the aforementioned first phase of Pippin Orchards and the 53-unit complex on the corner of Atkinson Lane and Freedom Boulevard recently approved by the City Council.

Councilmember Lowell Hurst, who has been on the City Council off and on since the late-80s, said that these plans have been in place for several decades and that he did not want to hold up the construction any longer. The project, he said, should serve as an example of why the city needs to expand and grow.

“We don’t have a whole lot of land to build anything on and this is what it kind of comes down to if we’re going to supply the kind of housing we need for farmworkers and disabled folks and others that really need housing,” Hurst said.

Councilmember Rebecca Garcia said that in Watsonville, which is home to much of the Pajaro Valley’s farmworker community, the “need for affordable housing outweighs any sacrifices that we need to make.”

Dutra said that to address that need the city and county must start working with farmers to build farmworker housing on their property, and highlighted the bill penned by local Assemblymember Robert Rivas and approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019.

City Manager Search Continues

In other action, the City Council did not make a final decision on the possible appointment of an interim city manager, City Attorney Alan Smith reported out of closed session.

It was the second time the City Council talked about the issue behind closed doors—public bodies conduct closed sessions to discuss private matters such as lawsuits, employees and the purchase or lease of real property.

Earlier in the day, outgoing City Manager Matt Huffaker was appointed as Santa Cruz’s chief executive. He will take over as that municipality’s city manager on Jan. 3, 2022.

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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