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Beach Flats Community Gardeners Hang On As Deadlines Come and Go

The Beach Flats Community Garden in Santa Cruz has been at the center of a dispute that lasted several months now.  The publicly run garden is located on private property, and the owners want some of the land back, but the gardeners don’t want to leave.

Beach Flats is a tightly packed neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  There’s not a lot of green space here, save for two small parks and the Beach Flats Community Garden.

“I am always here. Even when it is raining,” says  Emilio Martinez Castaneda (translated through an interpreter).

Martinez Castaneda has lived in this neighborhood for 45 years.  He’s grown food in the garden since the day it opened more than 20 years ago.  He’s one of 23 gardeners.

“We sow lots of things here: flowers, chayote, corn, cactus, peaches, avocados,” he says.

It’s not just the food. A whole community has grown around this garden.  Parents teaching kids to plant, and neighbors sharing the spoils of their work. 

It’s a far cry from what this land used to be.

“That was vacant and in total disrepair,” recalls Dannettee Shoemaker.  She is the Director of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation and was working in Parks and Rec back when the garden started.

“People were using it as a dumping ground.  Illegal drug use, prostitution. It was a horrible, horrible mess,” she recalls.

As Shoemaker remembers it, the neighborhood residents came up with the idea for the garden.   So the city worked with the land’s owner, the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, to come up with an agreement to lease it

“Oh it cleaned it up. We fenced it.  We brought water in.  We divided up the parcels, and the gardeners were there every single day, so there wasn’t a time or an opportunity for the illegal activity to happen,” says Shoemaker.

The Seaside Company leased the land to the city on a year to year basis for more than two decades asking only that the city pay for the water, and some years, property taxes.  

But now the Seaside Company, which owns the Beach Boardwalk, wants to take part of the land back to create a nursery for its landscaping needs.

“What the Seaside Company has offered us is about two-thirds, 60% of the existing garden,” says Shoemaker.  It’s a three year lease. 

Originally the Seaside Company wanted to take back the majority of the garden site, while offering the city other plots of land in the neighborhood to relocate. 

The gardeners fought back.  They organized a march to City Hall, made impassioned pleas at public meetings and started a petition.  So finding a compromise to share the space seemed like a victory.

“I still feel stuck.  There are many in the community who want the entire garden space, who feel it’s unacceptable for us to try and reconfigure the garden in two-thirds of the space, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” says Shoemaker.

The City wants the gardeners to move out, so that land can be reconfigured in the smaller space and plots reassigned.  Then it plans to begin negotiations with the Seaside Company to buy the land.  But the gardeners don’t want to leave until the deal is done.

“We are not willing to have a long term conversation until this transition occurs,” says Kris Reyes, spokesman for the Seaside Company.

He says they offered a three year lease so the City could have time to work on a permanent solution.

“We don’t plan to sell the land. We’ve said that very clearly. You know the Warriors arena is built on land we own, and we didn’t sell that land to make it work.  And so, there’s always ways to be creative and solve problems, but were at the point we can’t even get to that solution and conversation, and it’s very disappointing because it’s stopping progress of the thing everyone wants which is a garden in the Beach Flats,” says Reyes.

Joe Bonanno is a former gardener and now a spokesperson for the group.  He says he doesn’t want people to think the gardeners are ungrateful for all the years they’ve been allowed to use this land, but…

“This community is the most densely populated community.  It’s the most needy community in Santa Cruz and they really can’t suffer to lose that kind of resources that they rely on for food,” says Bonanno.

Gardener Emilio Martinez Castaneda adds,  “it would be horrible for them to take it, but as I said, that is just my opinion. They would take everything from me”

The city has set several deadlines for the gardeners to move out, so that the space can be reconfigured.  But so far those dates have come and gone with little movement.   The next deadline is Monday, February 1st.  

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.