WATSONVILLE -- A decade ago, after a historic compromise, Watsonville voters agreed to limits on city growth 25 years into the future.
Their commitment to what's known as Measure U appeared to be waning this year.
More than 2,000 residents signed a petition to put on the ballot the question of annexing 80 acres of farmland, placed off limits in the compromise.
While the proposal to annex the Sakata-Kett property for development of a shopping center drew scorn in some quarters, the successful petition drive means city voters will have a chance to weigh in by November 2014. That ensures the controversial proposal, which claimed a spot on the Sentinel's list of 2012 Newsmakers, will continue to grab headlines in the coming year.
"It's a battle that needs to be fought," said Councilman Daniel Dodge, the driving force behind the proposal. "Watsonville needs to grow or stagnate."
Dodge argues the city needs the land to expand its economy to provide jobs and to raise additional sales tax revenue to pay for critical city services.
While some see Sakata-Kett as prime farmland, Dodge views it as freeway access. The property is just off the Riverside Drive interchange with Highway 1, making it perfect for retail development, he said.
Dodge also wants to fold into the city two properties on the west side of Highway 1: A recently remodeled and expanded Chevron gas station and its next-door neighbor, a property most commonly known as the site of the dilapidated Redman-Hirahara mansion.
This year's end of redevelopment funding and a program that gave a state tax credit to businesses for hiring cost Watsonville its most important tools for economic development, he said. In a city where unemployment rates skyrocketed above 25 percent during the recession and remain well into double digits, something has to be done.
"No one has a better idea," Dodge said.
While ideas may be in short supply, opponents are not. Supervisor Greg Caput, who represents the city, thinks it's a bad idea. Ellen Pirie, who represented the Aptos area and part of Watsonville before she stepped down this month, was another early critic. In November, Cynthia Mathiesen, the new president of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, reiterated that group's opposition to paving over the farmland.
Watsonville Wetlands Watch, South County's premier environmental group, opposed annexation of Sakata-Kett in the past and isn't likely to change its position, said veteran board member Jim Van Houten.
"We want to support agriculture, and that's prime agricultural land," he said.
Conflicts pitting the city against farmers, environmentalists and the county are nothing new. But after a North County-dominated board charged with overseeing annexations turned down two city attempts to expand in the 1990s in the face of opposition, Action Pajaro Valley was formed to help the parties settle differences. The resulting compromise led to voter approval of Measure U.
Lisa Dobbins, Action Pajaro Valley's executive director, pointed out that Dodge is seeking to modify Measure U, not to overturn it.
But some suggest the city is heading down a slippery slope, with no guarantee of an endpoint. Jess Brown, the Farm Bureau's executive director, said there would be consequences if the city tries to change the terms of the deal.
"People will say 'You can't trust them,'" Brown said.
This isn't the first challenge to Measure U. A progress report, issued by Action Pajaro Valley on Friday, celebrates successes due to the compromise but also acknowledges shortcomings.
As Watsonville took steps toward expanding into areas allowed under the compromise squabbles arose, generally over the intensity of planned development.
Dodge said a Farm Bureau lawsuit over plans for development off Freedom Boulevard on Atkinson Lane was the first crack in the compromise.
Brown said the city has over-reached.
Dobbins said the compromise provided a framework. The details, she acknowledged, have been a little trickier to work out.
Amending it could be thornier still.
"We do feel strongly about Measure U," said Van Houten. "We put a lot of effort into it. There was a lot of compromise, a lot of discussion. We want to honor that commitment."
THE WAY AHEAD
Apple grower Jim Rider represented the Farm Bureau during the Action Pajaro Valley negotiations. He thinks Watsonville should stick to the "giant compromise," but understands why the issue's come up.
"For Watsonville to be a viable entity, it needs to have some sales tax revenue," Rider said. "My view is it's hard for Watsonville to see all its sales tax dollars go to other entities."
The city estimates it loses as much as a $1 million in sales taxes annually as residents shop in other jurisdictions.
But echoing others, Rider said the city should focus on revitalizing its downtown. In any case, he thinks the annexation proposal is a moot question.
"It's hard to take it too seriously because I can't see where it is really going to go anywhere," he said. "Even if they get this vote, they can't unilaterally annex that ground."
The Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission, which would have to approve the annexation, hasn't been friendly territory for Watsonville in the past.
Dodge acknowledges some think the city will hit a wall there again. But he said times have changed, and maybe LAFCO has changed with them.
Downtowns aren't the retail hubs of yesteryear, Dodge said. The days of Main Street J.C. Penney's and Woolworths are gone. Watsonville has to look at all avenues for economic growth.
"I don't want to say 'I can't do anything because it will never change,'" Dodge said.
Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS