City Council overhauls long-standing alcohol ordinance

The revised alcohol ordinance is expected to be a boon for Watsonville's downtown. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian File

WATSONVILLE — The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a complete overhaul of the city’s alcohol ordinance put in place 17 years ago.

The changes to the ordinance walk back several stringent limitations on alcohol-related businesses, including proximity restrictions of one business to another as well as to parks, schools and churches.

Also included in the changes: the creation of an overlay district, dubbed the “Central Commercial Core Area,” (CCA) in downtown that stretches from 2nd Street to 5th Street where up to 10 percent of all business can be alcohol related. Additionally, 20 percent of all business in shopping centers throughout the city will be allowed to be alcohol related.

The new ordinance, which was modeled after the cannabis ordinance the City approved in 2016, also includes an in-depth application process, additional training for current and prospective business owners, an annual $400 alcohol license fee that will fund police enforcement and operations and a streamlined procedure for city staff to modify or revoke permits for “problem operators”—something that was sorely lacking in the previous ordinance, city staff said.

The approval marked a big step forward for Watsonville and its tenuous relationship with alcohol-related businesses, which in the past was marred by troublesome owners even with its rigid ordinance passed in 2002.

Council members, business owners and community members in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting mostly agreed that the multilayered ordinance would move the city in the right direction.

“I believe these results are a win-win,” said Watsonville Deputy City Manager Tamara Vides. “I really think we found a balance of community prevention and business growth.”

The new ordinance is expected to be a boon for the City’s downtown, which has not only struggled to lure in new business but retain business, too, over the past two decades. According to City data, downtown could potentially add 15 new alcohol-related businesses and still stay under its 10-percent cap.

The percentage caps for both downtown and shopping centers exclude “bona fide eating places” that sell beer and wine. The lack of a cap on those businesses worried some council members, but city staff was confident that the new ordinance’s application process would weed out bad business owners.  

Proposed businesses would be graded on a broad list of qualities, including their location, business plan, neighborhood compatibility plan, safety and security plan, community benefits, labor and employment and local enterprise/qualifications of participants.

Only high-scoring applicants would be allowed to open, according to city staff.

“A lot of those businesses that turned into nuisances would not have gotten their licenses in the first place if this ordinance was in place before,” Vides said.

City staff said the changes to the ordinance would not go into effect until 30 days after the second hearing, which is expected to take place at an upcoming council meeting.

When the changes become official, the downtown will be on its way to becoming a hub for shops, restaurants, breweries and wine tasting rooms, said Neva Hansen.

“We have so much to offer in the Pajaro Valley, and I feel like we’re at a crucial time to highlight that…We should be sharing Watsonville with everyone,” said Hansen, who with husband, William, recently opened The Terrace luxury apartments in downtown and will soon begin construction on another retail and apartment complex, The Residence at 558 Main, just a block away.

Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Shaz Roth said the changes will allow the city to continue its recent rebound.

“The city is in the midst of great growth, and allowing the opportunity for a variety of places for people to gather will be critical for the future economic development and vitality of not only our beautiful downtown, but the entire city,” Roth said. 

The new ordinance has been a longtime coming, said longtime Watsonville resident Dan Hernandez and several others.

“It’s time we grow up, and this ordinance allows us to grow up,” Hernandez said. “I’m hoping to go downtown, have a beer, listen to some music, maybe run into a few friends I haven’t seen in years.” 

The Planning Commission earlier this month recommended the council up the proposed percentage caps in both downtown and in shopping centers. That, however, was thrown out in favor of the city’s original proposal, which included a 10 p.m. last call from Sunday-Thursday and an 11 p.m. last call on Friday and Saturday.

The original proposal, city staff argued, was the result of several months of meetings and compromise between multiple community members from various backgrounds.

“The real win here this evening is the cooperation with the community and the city, and the parents stepping up and wanting more education for their community and [their] willingness to engage in that too,” said councilman Lowell Hurst. “Everyone wants a downtown that’s lively and vivid but not too crimson. We’ve been there. We’ve seen that. I think that we’ve put in place something that we hope will work…We’re going to have some responsible operators and some positive change in the community.”

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