A bittersweet atmosphere hung over Beach Flats on Friday morning as community members gathered to reflect on and celebrate the community garden and mourn the expiration of its 20-year lease. However, this aura began to change as wafts of burning sage drifted over the fences, announcing the arrival of Dolores Huerta.
Huerta, 85, is a renowned labor leader, civil rights activist and founding member of the United Farm Workers. She passed through the Beach Flats while in town for a birthday celebration that doubled as a fundraiser for the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Three former mayors, current Mayor Don Lane and Santa Cruz City Council member Micah Posner were among the audience of at least 80 who came out to celebrate and hear Huerta speak.
“There are people out there who are manipulating our food supply, and we have to counter that with things like a community garden so the people will understand why it’s important, how food is grown and where it comes from. That knowledge is being taken away from us,” Huerta said. “I want to thank you all for the fight you are going through right now to keep this garden. Thank you all for doing what you are doing.”
Gardener Domingo Martinez presented Huerta with a key to the garden as well as a basket of fresh vegetables, a t-shirt and a welcoming certificate to the garden. After receiving the gifts, Huerta stressed the importance of small community gardens to the crowd. Her presence was described as “comfortable” by gardener Don Emilio Martinez Castañeda, who reflected on the garden’s beginnings.
“When I got here, there was a lot of trash,” Don Emilio said in Spanish during the interview. “[The garden founder Gia Grant] asked if we wanted to garden here, if we wanted to clean. I thought, no, well it’s really ugly. [But] we started cleaning [and] a lot of people slept on planks. Getting rid of old cars, old tires … we all worked together.”
The Beach Flats garden has been a neighborhood hub and source of local organic food for the community since 1994. Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which owns the Boardwalk and many other surrounding areas, has allowed gardeners and community members to use the garden rent-free since its opening, only asking that the city of Santa Cruz pay the municipal water fees.
“After that, [Seaside] left. It left us here by ourselves,” Don Emilio said. “It can’t take away this land.”
Seaside Company announced that it will take back the land, using it for its own landscaping purposes starting Nov. 13. Since September, Santa Cruz City Council has been in negotiations with Seaside to come up with both temporary and long-term solutions to acquire the entire garden permanently. The city has agreed to a 60/40 percent lease, in which 40 percent will return to Seaside Company.
“Seaside Company has said that it is not willing to sell the garden, but the city does have a lot of power. [Seaside] has to apply to the city for development permits and everything so I think it’s still completely possible that we will succeed in the next months or years,” said City Council member Micah Posner. “Eminent domain is hanging out in the background, — it’s a way the city could unilaterally act — but it’s certainly not our preference.”
Although the city and Seaside have yet to sign the new lease, officials from the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department put up caution tape just before the initial lease was up, separating the community’s land from Seaside Company’s portion.
“We put up the caution tape because the community wanted to see what would be allotted,” said Parks and Recreation Director Dannettee Shoemaker. “Unfortunately, there are a few people who are stirring things up, but the caution tape was put up to see the 16,000 [square foot] allotment.”
The space will remain closed until January while Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation applies for a temporary use permit and allots the 17 spaces for the gardeners. The planning commission received the application and will review it at its meeting on Dec. 17. The Beach Flats community will have a chance to contest the plan in a 10-day appeal process.
“We are hoping that by Jan. 4, we have the go-ahead to work quickly to design the garden to fit [the spaces]. Ideally, [the garden would reopen] in late January,” Shoemaker said. “Again, everything is dependent on if we get a ton of rain and the soil is too wet to work with. Our goal is to get everyone in as soon as possible, weather permitting.”
Although there are 24 total gardeners working in the Beach Flats garden, only the 17 who are listed on the registration with the city will receive the 400-450 square feet plots. Beach Flats resident Joe Bonanno expressed his frustration with City Council that because these seven gardeners aren’t on contract, the city has “no obligation to them.”
“When we rearrange this garden, they’re gone,” Bonanno said. “I’m irked by that, especially since the city has been choosing to not reassign parcels for many years, and at this moment when the garden is the smallest it’s ever been is when [the city] is deciding how big it gets to be in the future.”
Some of the gardeners, including Don Emilio, have said that they are willing to share their plots so that their friends and community members do not have to lose what little garden is left, but sharing plots means crowding crops and less product overall.
The community continues to meet on Saturdays at 4 p.m. in the garden, collectively discussing a permanent solution for the space that addresses all concerns.
“At least people are interested enough to come down. Hopefully these people will continue to stay interested and stand by our side in this battle,” Bonanno said. “We have lost the battle, but not the war.”
Additional reporting by Anna Korotina and Jasper Lyons