As a longtime elected official representing the people of Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley, I know how essential and important the agricultural industry is to the region and the rest of Santa Cruz County. In two elections, the voters of Watsonville have overwhelmingly affirmed their support for protecting farmland with an urban limit line, which was created by the passage of Measure U in 2002 and reaffirmed by voters in 2013.
Over the past year, a coalition of community leaders, environmentalists, farmers, students and agricultural workers have united in an effort to renew the urban limit line, which is scheduled to expire in the coming years. This group, the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection, collected over 3,000 signatures from Watsonville voters to place a measure on the November ballot. If passed by a majority of the voters, it would keep the urban growth boundary in place through 2040.
I know how essential and equally important the need for housing is at all levels. I am confident that we can meet this need within the existing urban growth boundary. The renewal of Measure U will help protect surrounding farmlands and the natural environment, preserving the unique character of our community for years to come. With planning tools such as infill development, accessing local, state and federal housing grants, creating Opportunity Zones in Census tracts eligible for preferential tax treatment, new state housing and transit-oriented development legislation, local streamlining and expediting of the permit process for workforce housing, affordable and very affordable housing, as well as ADUs—we can create new jobs, generate much-needed sales tax revenue and provide housing opportunities for our police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, retail workers and agricultural workers within the existing urban limit line.
The urban limit line will also help us focus on the development of downtown Watsonville which will include infill housing and downtown revitalization. Such developments can help alleviate the housing crisis and bring new economic life to downtown Watsonville. Our Downtown Revitalization Committee is doing an excellent job in providing the framework for making our downtown safe for bicyclists and pedestrians, an inviting place for families and one that encourages economic investment.
There are some challenges, of course. We may still need to increase the density within our defined downtown district to both support our local businesses and meet our housing needs. In order to maximize infill development, we need to allow local building owners to create a combination of mixed-use, retail on the bottom and housing on top, and allow them to go up three or four stories.
One of the barriers to this is archaic parking restrictions. We need to make parking requirements less restrictive within the downtown district. It becomes a barrier for both developers, investors, and potential local business entrepreneurs when we tell them how many parking spaces they need. Less restrictive parking and additional density near other transit and transportation corridors can help replace obsolete retail and commercial structures. Increasing density means more amenities and public goods for everyone.
We may also need some local business entrepreneur development to diversify our downtown and create a new cadre of local business owners who become our next micro job creators. We need to increase transportation opportunities downtown, from the Santa Cruz METRO’s circular bus route, Ride Share Programs, E-Bike Share Programs—we need them all to fulfill that last-mile gap.
Lastly, we need to make the state highway that goes right through our downtown safe for families, seniors, students, children, disabled persons, pedestrians, bicyclists and commuters alike. I know that, currently, Caltrans is having a major shift in perception and funding streams for the prioritization of complete streets planning, speed calming, road rechanneling, active transportation and bike and pedestrian safe infrastructure.
Because of these important and exciting opportunities, I am excited to endorse the campaign to renew the Measure U urban limit line, which will protect our vital farmland and beautiful wetlands by directing smart urban growth in the city of Watsonville.
It is important to remember that the Pajaro Valley farmland is the most productive in the world because of its unique deep soils and moderate climate. This farmland is an amazing asset for our county since it allows for a large variety of crops and helps with the food security of our region, state and nation. It creates direct agricultural jobs and other farm-supported jobs. The renewal of the urban limit line will help Watsonville focus on infill development and downtown revitalization while protecting prime agricultural lands and the surrounding natural environment.
We need to come together and identify the potential housing sites within the urban limit line and work together as a community to address our housing crisis. We cannot allow the families who have lived and worked here for generations to be pushed out to Hollister, Castroville, Salinas or Los Banos because there are no housing opportunities here. Together, we can keep the unique character of our town and truly make Watsonville a better place to live, work and play.
Felipe Hernandez is a candidate for Santa Cruz County Supervisor, a Cabrillo College Trustee and former Watsonville Mayor and city councilman.