WATSONVILLE — Pajaro Valley High School is the closest it’s ever been to building its long-awaited athletic field.
And after Tuesday night, it just needs to wait a little longer before it is in the clear.
The Watsonville City Council voted unanimously to approve the school’s football field and track, more than 13 years after PV High welcomed its first students on campus.
Councilwoman Nancy Bilicich recused herself from the meeting, as she is an employee of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
The plans call for an eight-lane track and football field, bleachers for up to 2,200 people and a concession and restroom building. The facility will replace the school’s current practice field on an eight-acre lot near its entrance.
The city now has less than a week to notify the California Coastal Commission about the approval. The commission then has five working days to provide a notice for the 10-day appeal period. If nobody objects during that time, the project can move forward.
PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said the district will go out to bid after the waiting period. If all goes to plan, construction could begin in mid-June, and work will wrap up by the 2019-20 school year.
She thanked city and PVUSD staff, as well as the Watsonville Pilots Association, for working together.
“The students truly deserve this,” Rodriguez said. “We are glad we are finally able to do it for them.”
PVUSD originally prepared plans to add a football field and track on a 10-acre site north of the school’s parking lot in 2014. The plan was immediately challenged by the Watsonville Pilots Association, who contended the athletic facilities are in the flight path of the airport, creating a danger in the event of an emergency landing or crash.
A settlement agreement between PVUSD and WPA relocated the project to within the school’s footprint, and the pilots agreed to withdraw their opposition. In addition, the sports facilities will not include lights, meaning that the school cannot have nighttime games.
“The airport safety features in the agreement will benefit the students, the public and the pilots,” said WPA Legal Affairs Liaison John Randolph. “We appreciate District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez for having the vision and skill to know how to negotiate a way forward. The WPA will work actively with the school district to obtain the approvals needed.”
According to Principal Planner Justin Meek, city staff also added an indemnity provision in the agreement, which holds the city harmless should the approval be challenged in court. The PVUSD Board of Trustees will now consider approving the provision in the next 90 days.
Rodriguez said the district agrees with the provision.
“The district is extremely confident there will be no challenges to the city’s approval,” she said.
The sports facility, and the auditorium that is still in the works, are together estimated at $19.3 million. Of that, $18.4 million is covered by Measure L funds, with the remainder covered by one-time funds from Proposition 58.
Tuesday’s meeting garnered a large group of PV High students and teachers, as well as PVUSD officials, who showed their support of the project.
PV High senior Luis Leonor said generations of students have come to the school expecting to have a complete campus.
“It’s been a long trek,” he said. “Finally we are maybe lucky enough to see it happen.”
Fellow senior Dan Lopez said he was “super excited” about the project.
“This gives us a fair opportunity to compete, and allows us to have the proper facilities,” he said.
Mayor Lowell Hurst said he was encouraged by the cooperation between all the parties involved.
“It’s been a long grind, and it has a lot of history,” he said.
A history of opposition
Before settling on the Harkins Slough Road site in the late 1990s, PVUSD officials had conducted a number of studies on various sites for a third high school in the Pajaro Valley.
Among those was near Pinto Lake on Green Valley Road. In 1988, architectural design work was performed and the state approved the construction of a school on that site, according to a March 2000 article in the Register-Pajaronian. The Green Valley Action Committee, a neighborhood group, opposed the location, convincing the PVUSD Board of Trustees to vote against the site 6-1.
In June 2001, the Watsonville City Council approved the construction of the school, designed for 2,200 students, on the 33-acre site on Harkins Slough Road. The plans did not include a regulation size football field or track.
The approval met opposition soon after it was proposed, and received a number of appeals to the California Coastal Commission in 2001. Opponents said the school was not only near the Buena Vista Landfill, but it was also close to a dump site that once accepted debris from the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Critics also expressed concern about its proximity to the Watsonville Municipal AIrport and agricultural land.
In October 2001, the Coastal Commission voted to uphold the approval, and the school was constructed in 2003, welcoming its first students on campus in 2005.
But generations of students have passed through PV High since then without a complete campus. Student-athletes have had to either travel across town to Watsonville High School or 10 miles north on Highway 1 to Cabrillo College in order to play home football games.
In 2012, voters passed Measure L, a $150 million bond that included funds for upgrading play fields at the high school.
After facing litigation from WPA in 2014 about the field’s proposed location north of the school’s parking lot, PVUSD and WPA hashed out a settlement agreement in September 2017. WPA withdrew its objections to the project, while the district redesigned the development to be located within the footprint of the school.
More construction pending
Once the athletic facilities are built, PV High’s campus will still not be complete.
Still in the approval stages, a 15,000-square-foot auditorium was approved by the council in early 2017, but faced opposition from the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics and WPA.
On Dec. 21, 2016, Caltrans sent a letter in opposition to the project, stating that the city does not have a general plan that complies with the State Aeronautics Act, and therefore could not approve the project.
Known as the second phase of construction work at the high school, the settlement agreement states that PVUSD and WPA will move forward with the auditorium after a court case is resolved between the city and the pilots.
In that case, WPA claims that the city had diverted revenue from the airport enterprise fund to the general fund from 1980 to 2010.