Courtesy photo: Google Earth

By Georgia Johnson and Juan Cristian Villamil

Santa Cruz Seaside Company offered to extend just under two-thirds of the Beach Flats community garden’s lease for another three years. The remaining 10,000 square feet excluded from the lease will be used by Seaside Company as a landscaping area to grow and later transplant young plants.

Santa Cruz City Council members unanimously voted to accept the offer at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, but they face both an unappeased community and frustrated Seaside Company.

At its Oct. 27 meeting, City wCouncil declared its intent to find the garden a permanent home, explaining that the three-year lease is only a temporary solution. Since 1994, the garden has been a source of organic food for low-income families. For the past two decades, Seaside Company has not required rent or property tax for the space but asked the city to pay for water usage. The same conditions will apply to the three-year lease.

Since the city council meeting, the Beach Flats community has hosted two other meetings with the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department and City Council members to continue discussing a short-term solution for the garden.

Mayor Don Lane and Santa Cruz City Council members meet with gardeners and community members at the garden on Nov. 7 to inform them that Santa Cruz Seaside Company is only willing to rent just under two-thirds of the garden for the next three years. Photo by Jasper Lyons

“You have unanimously agreed to look for the permanent solution for the garden. How can you come back to us and offer two-thirds?” said community member Senka Bogren at a meeting. “You did not work hard to find any solution for us for our garden. You have put so much energy to find a way to accommodate Seaside.”

Santa Cruz City Council has mediated between the community and Seaside Company. Many people expressed disappointment with the city’s inability to preserve the entire garden. Others said the property rights of Seaside Company, along with its past generous contributions, need to be respected.

“Seaside Company gave them a start that was virtually for free and I don’t think [Seaside Company owner] Mr. Canfield and the leadership of Seaside Company have been thanked enough,” said local real estate attorney Kent Washburn. “I would like to make my voice the loudest one to say they deserve our respect and our thanks for what’s been done in the past, and that I respect their property rights going forward into the future.”

Santa Cruz Seaside Company spokesman Kris Reyes explained this issue should have been resolved in the 1999 Beach Area Plan — which stated the city’s intent to find a permanent garden — but was never addressed.

“I think most people in the greater Santa Cruz community can understand that when one entity loans something to another and decides that they need some of that back for their purposes, it makes perfect sense and is totally reasonable,” Reyes said. “There is a small segment of activists who have been very misleading in the way they have engaged on this issue.”

Seaside Company initially offered two smaller plots about 6,000 to 7,000 square feet each to the gardeners in early October. The community rejected this proposal.

“[The city has] told us they are interested in trying to buy it and we have told them the land is not for sale. The conversation has really ended there,” Reyes said. “If somebody wants to buy your car, and you don’t want to sell it, then there’s really nothing to talk about. So we don’t have any intention of selling this land, we have been very clear about that.”

The Beach Flats gardeners have repeatedly asked the city to use eminent domain to take possession of the garden for its essential public purpose. The city has expressed that it’s neither timely nor in the budget to do so, and it would ultimately threaten the city’s relationship with Seaside Company.

“[Eminent domain] is definitely something I think we are all thinking about,” said City Council member Micah Posner. “At the moment, we are trying to have a collaborative approach to buy the land. Just to be straight up, talking about that is kind of threatening. It doesn’t seem constructive to be talking about that.”

Beach Flats community and City Council members have met several times to discuss the garden’s future in anticipation of the Nov. 13 date when Seaside Company will occupy its portion of the land. The remaining land will be divided into 17 plots, at least 400 square feet for each registered gardener. Yet, there are at least 10 additional gardeners who operate within the garden the Beach Flats community but aren’t registered.

“What will I do with my family and all of my fellow workers? A lot of people rely on the garden as a source of food,” said 73-year-old Don Emilio Martinez-Castañeda, who has gardened at Beach Flats since it opened in 1994. “If they take the plants from us, they won’t be harvested this year. How will we feed ourselves if that happens?”

The garden will be out of use from Nov. 13 through early January while the city works to get a temporary use permit through the planning department and lays out the 17 plots.  Parks and Recreation Director Dannettee Shoemaker said that while there may be some gardens that will not have to be disturbed and fit into the plot footprint, the majority of the plots will be moved around during the transition process.

“Seaside Company wants its third of the property on or around Nov. 14, but they’re going to give us a bit of wiggle room,” Shoemaker said. “We will evaluate the crops that are out there once the old tired vegetables are pulled out. After that, I think we will see that there are actually less and less [crops that need to be uprooted and moved].”

As the day approaches, Seaside Company prepares to carry out the acquisition of the negotiated part of the Beach Flats garden.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane said that because the transition has been relatively smooth so far, nothing “dramatic” will happen on Nov. 13. Santa Cruz city workers are expected to come in and place markers around the area to block off boundaries between the community land and Seaside Company land.

“There is this need to get the gardeners and their supporters to work with the city on what to do for now, with this two-third footprint,” Lane said. “Hopefully now people will put some energy into that for a while.”

While City Council will look for a more permanent solution, the gardeners will have to wait until they have a smaller plot to begin their gardening once again.