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March 3, 2021

Watsonville City Council unanimously rejects propane facility

WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council unanimously denied a special use permit for a proposed propane storage facility after a more than two-hour hearing in which several members of the public called the project an example of “environmental racism.”

Richard Kojak of Mountain Propane Service in Felton sought to use a vacant 0.7-acre lot at 950 West Beach St. to store and distribute at least 50,000 gallons of propane. But the City Council in its first meeting of the year shot down those plans, citing concerns about the safety of the facility, and its possible impact on the environment and future business opportunities in that area of the city.

Although the area is zoned as heavy industrial and the project’s use fits the 2005 General Plan still used by the city as its guiding document, several council members said that area could look very different in just a few years. The “Rail-Trail,” including a portion of the pedestrian and cyclist trail already under construction, will run a few dozen feet from the location. And the Manabe-Ow Business Park, a major vacant development that has the potential to welcome other large employers, is also a stone’s throw from the location.

“This location will be a spot for so many people to enjoy and be able to walk around,” said Mayor Jimmy Dutra. “I understand that this is an industrial area, but Watsonville is changing.”

Plans for the project included installing a new railcar unloading tower and two new tank unloading stations. It would have also refurbished and moved an already existing 50,000-gallon propane tank. The project had the potential to add four additional 30,000-gallon propane tanks, though Kojak at Tuesday’s meeting said he would not expand the storage if the City Council asked.

It has been a much-debated item since it first went public in July of last year. The Watsonville Planning Commission unanimously recommended the City Council deny the project in September.

The project also received pushback from various people, including George Ow Jr., a major local real estate developer and philanthropist whose family spreadhead the Manabe-Ow Business Park.

Several environmental and community advocates, including Consuelo Alba, the executive director and co-founder of the Watsonville Film Festival, also asked leaders to deny the project. Alba before the September commission meeting joined Ow in writing a lengthy letter of opposition saying that the facility—because of a possible propane explosion or fire at the location—would not only endanger the adjacent businesses but also the nearby homes, schools and the slough along Ohlone Parkway and Walker Street.

But Kojak at the September meeting said those concerns are overblown, and that explosions at propane facilities are rare thanks to the advances in preventative technology. Community Development Department staff and Watsonville Fire Chief Rudy Lopez said propane facilities are also heavily policed by Cal/OSHA and various federal agencies. Watsonville Fire also requires similar facilities to pass a yearly inspection.

Still, the facility’s proximity—a little more than 300 feet—to a manufacturing plant that produces 65,000 gallons of biodiesel everyday raised concerns about possible “catastrophic fire and property damage and/or loss of life were it to spread to the nearby biodiesel plant,” according to the prepared staff report.

In a letter to the City Council submitted on Jan. 14, Kojak said the “project’s positive impacts far outweigh any potential downside” and that it would bring good jobs and needed tax revenue.

“Propane storage facilities exist next to all types of development including industrial parks like the one proposed for the adjacent property and even schools, hospitals and residential developments throughout the region and the rest of the state,” his letter reads. “Propane storage facilities are safe and ubiquitous. I am sorry to say that the opposition has resorted to a campaign of misinformation and misleading statements to drum up support for their position.”

More than 30 people—including former mayors Manuel Bersamin and Oscar Rios—spoke in opposition of the project Tuesday, asking the City Council to not again put “profits over people” and to side with the safety of its constituents.

“I do want to see job growth in my community but not this way—this is not what I envision for our community,” said Victoria Bañales, a Watsonville resident and instructor at Cabrillo College. “It upsets me to see that we’re having these fights over and over again. This is a form of environmental racism, in my opinion. Why aren’t we building these in places like Carmel or Santa Barbara? Generally, they tend to be in lower-income, brown and black communities. We can do better as a city.”

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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