A group plans to file a complaint with the California Attorney’s Office against the city of Watsonville and Santa Cruz County for moving ahead with a housing project they say will pose an environmental hazard to its future residents and a massive liability for the city .
The Watsonville Committee Against Toxics plans to submit the documents to Rob Bonta’s office in the coming days. According to committee member Lisa DuPont, her complaint will allege that the jurisdictions’ approval of plans for Hillcrest Estate — a long-delayed 144-unit housing development on Ohlone Parkway — violates several mandates of the Environmental Justice in Local Land Use Planning Act and endangers the health of the future residents by allowing the developer to bury approximately 20,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil in a cement-capped pit on the 13-acre property.
A 2021 report by a consultant hired by developer California Sunshine Development LLC found that the top two feet of soil on the site of the former vehicle junkyard contained varying levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other fuel-based contaminants. Some of these toxins have been found at levels far in excess of various environmental and government standards.
Watsonville City Council approved a development agreement for the project at its Tuesday night meeting, which will allow Sunshine Development to move forward with the project in five phases while it can receive final approval from the county’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The agreement will allow the developer to sell the homes – 29 of which will be reserved for low- and middle-income residents – in waves if the project is completed over a four-year period. However, it will also pass on to homeowners the responsibility for maintaining the pit through the forthcoming Homeowners Association, a move critics say could see future residents with a seven-figure bill if the pit ever fails and pollutants settle in nearby spread scabbed or sick residents.
Council members Jimmy Dutra and Rebecca Garcia voted against the development deal.
A rejection by the council on Tuesday would not have stopped the project, which has been a thorn in the side of elected leaders since it first surfaced in 2018. It would only have meant that the houses could not have been sold in waves over time of construction.
Over the past five years, the development has been severely pushed back by neighbors concerned about increased traffic, struggled to secure funding, and changed the name (it was previously Sunshine Vista) and project managers several times.
It was first approved in 2018, and the council gave developers a two-year extension in 2020.
The development team returned to the council last year to propose a major change to the soil remediation plan. Rather than digging, hauling, and discarding the top 2-foot layer of soil, the developer proposed removing only the top 6 inches and burying the remaining 18 inches in the cement-sealed pit.
The council approved this plan by a vote of 4 to 3.
The developer has claimed that without this concession, the project would not be financially viable, that the plan meets all county and state sanitation requirements, that ground cover is an EPA-recognized land remediation measure, and that no houses or fields will be built across the pit – according to the site plan, a road and a basketball court are to be built on it.
But various environmental groups and neighbors say the city has agreed to establish a de facto toxic waste dump and that the pit – and its retaining walls that separate the contaminated soil from the swamp and homes – are bound to fail in a catastrophic earthquake.
About a dozen people spoke to the council on Tuesday about the issue, and all opposed the project. Some, like DuPont, spoke out against the development for the first time. For others, the meeting was the final chapter in a long-running struggle.
Like many residents of the Sea View Ranch neighborhood, Noriko Ragsac has spoken out against the development on numerous occasions over the past five years, initially raising concerns about the additional traffic and loss of green space if the project were approved. But Ragsac and other Sea View Ranch neighbors claim their problem isn’t housing.
“We want housing,” Ragsac said after the meeting. “We want this project to be built, but sure.”
The majority of the council said they trust the district’s judgment on the redevelopment plan, that Watsonville is in dire need of new homes that are being put up for sale and that this is the latest ploy by nearby neighbors to halt development.
“They don’t want people moving in,” said Councilman Eduardo Montesino, who oversees the area of the city where the development is taking place. “Even if we have the perfect conditions, they will still find other ways to say ‘no’.”
Councilor Francisco “Paco” Estrada echoed Montesino, saying that Watsonville is a city of “haves and have-nots,” highlighting the gap between homeowners and those struggling to buy a home amid currently skyrocketing home prices — many of the latter are colored. He also asked those in attendance to visit the California Department of Toxic Substances Control’s website and view the agency’s map of locations that have been remediated. This list of local properties includes the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz, which was once a leather tannery.
“Building housing here is difficult enough as it is, and this false dichotomy that we have to choose between security and housing is ridiculous,” he said. “The year is 2022. I think the technology has gone far enough where we can do both, where we can create homes, and we can do it in a safe way where it doesn’t affect people’s health.”
Councilwoman Vanessa Quiroz-Carter, who was not on council when the new land plan was approved last year, said the same boundaries apply due to restrictions on outward growth resulting from an “urban boundary line” approved by Watsonville voters in 2002 One group is trying to extend to 2040 in November’s election – that the council must move forward with refill housing projects when they come ahead.
“If we’re asked to have housing and we’re asked to build within our housing boundaries and that’s what’s available, then I’ll say we have to build with what’s available within our lines,” she said .