Pioneer Valley High School senior Casey Mata Garcia said he began advocating for more community green space because of the access inequalities he saw between his community in northern Santa Maria and its neighbors.
“A lot of the residents in northern Santa Maria are field workers of low socioeconomic status. I grew up in northern Santa Maria and I know the reality is a lot of families don’t have access to cars, and carpool to work,” Mata Garcia said. “Recreation has to be walking distance, and they don’t have access to green spaces like Pismo and SLO and Avila because they don’t have access to that car.”
Mata Garcia highlighted these experiences at the May 17 Board of Supervisors Meeting as a member of Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy’s (CAUSE) youth advocacy program to show support for the Santa Maria Levee Trail expansion—a 6.7 mile addition to a 2.7 mile walking path along the Santa Maria riverbed that would connect to Guadalupe.
The Board of Supervisors discussion, which happened after the Sun went to press, focused on the trail feasibility study—a document analyzing the Levee Trail’s impacts—but wasn’t planning on making any decisions yet, according to county documents.
High schoolers advocating for the trail signed petitions, held canvassing events, and submitted public comments in support of the trail’s expansion, and gathered community feedback. Mata Garcia said community members told the CAUSE advocates they think it’s a good idea, and would support its expansion.
“More importantly, it would be amazing for immigrant and farm workers—who are paying high rent and high utilities to live on the Central Coast—to benefit from [a] green space [because] all those green spaces that are ‘close’ aren’t close at all,” Mata Garcia said.
Farmers who work near the trail aren’t so sure about the expansion, Facts from Farmers founder Lacey Litten told the Sun in a previous interview, because they’re concerned about trespassing, theft, homelessness issues, and produce and property damage. She said that farmers along the current Levee Trail already experience these things and are worried the problems will get worse.
CAUSE Policy Advocate Rebeca Garcia said there are other trails that coexist with farmland, and this should not be a reason to deny the project. Rather, there should be more investment in the trail to enhance its safety for users and farmers
“There are ways to be in communication with each other [through] clear instructions and clear boundaries. If we assume from the beginning that folks are going to steal and trespass, we are not going to be a community when you have those assumptions,” Garcia said.
Her concern with this project moving forward is that the needs of the agriculture industry will be prioritized over community needs because of the industry’s financial power.
“Money really pushes people to make decisions, and it’s hard to advocate for vulnerable communities,” she said. “With the stories of our youth and many other community members, we are able to show how needed it [the trail] is, and that we need to prioritize the health of our community—which is in dire need to move safely.”