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July 11-18, 2007

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

GIVE 'EM FIVE

A month has passed since Monterey County's contentious land-use election, and with the votes all counted, the results certified and the outcome clear, disputants are inching toward a compromise reflecting the voters' word.

And the word the voters spoke was "no." No, they did not want their board of supervisors' growth-permissive General Plan Update 4 (GPU4), nor a good example of it, a 1,000-home golf-oriented subdivision in Rancho San Juan, just north of Salinas. No, they did not want LandWatch's restrictive Community General Plan, nor did they want that group repealing the supes' version.

Furthermore, the final "no" spoken in the finalized vote count was even firmer than in the initial tally. Measure A, LandWatch's land-use initiative, got thumped 44 percent to 56 percent, winning only one of the county's five districts--namely, the one in which the most areas were exempted from its control. The Rancho San Juan development proposal lost in all five districts. And neither the GPU4 adoption nor repeal measures did much better.

Whether this mass nyet represents multi-measure confusion, refusal to engage in ballot-box planning, disgust with government breakdown, rejection of extreme planning approaches or some combo thereof remains unknown. But one thing is clear: unless the competing parties get together, court dates loom.

So even as the rhetoric continues, with Supervisor Fernando Armenta telling the Monterey County Weekly that "this fight about land use is going to continue," Supervisor Jerry Smith rejecting compromise because "GP4 is already a compromise," and LandWatch spokesman Chris Fitz still claiming that "GPU4 allows subdivision everywhere" (a legal impossibility), those very parties are beginning to edge toward reconciliation.

The clearest indication was Fitz unexpectedly appearing at a recent board of supervisors meeting to publicly propose a middle ground.

His ideas? GPU4 allowed seven main development areas, LandWatch's plan, five; Fitz suggests a compromise at six. And, he says, jettison both GPU4's nine rural growth areas and LandWatch's demand for none and settle at five. Enough to serve more geographically isolated residents yet limit further ecological despoilment.

Will those suggestions do the trick? And can other issues--GPU4's numerous development loopholes or LandWatch's demand that minor zoning deviations be handled by countywide election--be worked out? Time will soon tell, as the Monterey County Board of Supervisors is meeting in closed session to consider its next move as this story is being printed.

PAINLESS PLAN?

Meanwhile, the City of Santa Cruz has been updating its General Plan, and Nūz checked in with city Planning and Community Development Director Greg Larson and General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) chair Don Lane to find out whether similar disputes are developing here.

"During the height of the Monterey County election battle, I heard several folks mention the possibility of the city going to the ballot," Larson told Nūz, "either proactively or being forced." And since that time? "Interestingly, since the Monterey election, I've not heard it discussed at all."

Why is that? "Possibly because the Monterey results were so inconclusive and expensive," said Larson. But there would also appear to be a second reason; namely, the extreme care the city took in putting together the update process.

With the current city General Plan slated for overhaul around the year 2005, the city began working in 2004. First step: decide who would do the initial work.

Keep the group small and limit it to city planning commissioners and a couple of others, pled former planning director Gene Arner in a January 2005 letter, noting that "the larger the advisory panel, the more time it takes to reach consensus."

But six other city committee and commission members expressed interest, as did 10 members of the public, including former mayor Lane, later elected chair. UCSC had a right to be there, too. As did alternate members to fill in for unavailable regular members. On March 22, 2005, the Santa Cruz City Council, keeping the group as small as it could while accommodating the widespread interest, appointed a General Plan Advisory Committee of 17 members.

Second step: make rules for the group. Would the UCSC rep be able to speak? To vote? Could alternates take part in debate when regulars couldn't attend?

After intense discussion, on June 9 GPAC passed, and on July 26 the City Council approved, final by-laws. Yes, the UC rep could speak at any time, but not vote. Yes, alternates could debate, but only until a motion was made--and could only participate when regulars were absent. Last note on the approval proposal: "Fiscal impact: None."

With the city's General Plan update committee formed and ordered, GPAC's next step was for members to get to know both each other and the public's general take. The first occurred in an all-day retreat, the second at a community design workshop at Gault School, which worked out magically.

"Over 100 people attended," planning director Larson told Nūz, "and used colored markers to show us what they'd like to see where," marking up a wall-mounted map of the city until it radiated like a rainbow. Larson feels strongly enough about the outcome of the workshop that "staff and I plan to use it, when possible, for every other area planning process."

And out of that workshop came three strong ideas: "the whole notion of creating gateways," or making entrances to the city and its areas that are pleasant and distinctive; "the idea that we need to stop turning our back on the river" and instead integrate its beauty into downtown; and "walkability--the question of how residents can get that pita bread or box of rice milk without having to use a car." A tough task in suburban areas where residents pride themselves on keeping out commercial services.

Community members continued to attend and speak up at every successive GPAC meeting, as well, and it continued to work. "When staff debriefed after each meeting," Larson told Nūz, "almost every time, we would find that some member of the community had come up with a better solution to something than we'd come up with ourselves."

Of particular surprise to GPAC, and to Larson, was the size and determination of a contingent of artists who showed up during the process to demand that the outflux of artists, and artistic opportunities, be halted. "The arts community showed up in force," Larson says. "Thirty to 40 people, at one meeting, saying that 'We want the arts to be central to city planning.'" And the group got its wish, with 13 specific policies supporting the arts now in the new draft city General Plan, including one to "promote the development of city Art and Entertainment Districts" and another to "Encourage the development of artist studios and artist work/live units," both of which are currently in short supply.

Overall, the General Plan Advisory Committee process went on for more than two testimony-filled years.

Lane, the community volunteer member who ended up being elected chair (in part because he so strongly led the city's most recent Housing Advisory Committee, which wrote the Housing Element of the plan three years ago), told Nūz that his least favorite part of the process was the grueling schedule.

"When we found out that we had to meet at least twice a month, in three-hour [Thursday] meetings, to meet the City's deadline for completing our task," it was difficult--especially since the city planning commissioners involved had to meet the other two Thursdays. Adds Larson: "We essentially told commissioners that we were tying up their every Thursday night for months." At no pay.

For Larson, the real test came in November of 2006, when the copious information had been assembled and the time came to start boiling it all down. "My big concern was, will this group be able to transition from a discussion group to a decision-making group?" By December it had, thanks, he says, to Lane.

In the end, though, the group--commissioners, staff, alternates and members of the public--got through the fatigue and ended up colleagues and perhaps friends. "Many of the GPAC members went out for a celebratory drink after the final meeting," Lane says, "and everyone from across the political spectrum and several members of the city staff all conveyed their genuine respect and appreciation."

Greg Larson added a detail the often self-effacing Lane didn't: "Don and I agreed to split the cost of the first round of drinks for everyone, but only if the group finished its work by 10pm." In the best tradition of past pols, from Thomas Jefferson to Lyndon Johnson, Lane "stopped the clock at 10," declaring time suspended until work finished a few minutes later. And then it was off to drinks.

And to the City Council, which got the last of GPAC's suggestions on June 26. The councilmembers liked them, especially the fact that the new General Plan most affects already intensely developed areas while leaving residential neighborhoods fundamentally untouched.

"Am I right that there is no downzoning or upzoning of neighborhoods here?" asked councilmember Mike Rotkin, referring to changes in underlying density. No, there aren't, responded Larson. Approval of GPAC's work was unanimous.

The process, estimates city planner Ken Thomas, is "about two-thirds through." Next come the EIR's, public hearings and zoning maps.

THE MAP

The most striking feature of the map of planned changes--or, "Preferred Land Use Alternative for General Plan 2025," as it's officially called--is how few changes appear.

Nearly the entire city appears in not-to-be-modified white, with occasional little brightly colored, Lego-shaped interruptions here and there. Three along Mission Street, representing medium density, mixed-use, commercial and residential development. Three more along Soquel Avenue and one on Water Street, representing the same, only slightly higher density. And a trio at the uglier parts of freeway-proximate Ocean Street, signaling a wish for better-looking structures.

Outside of those, just two more colored sections appear, between downtown and the beach, representing the longstanding desire to tie them together. Add a shaded area indicating riverfront attention. The map clearly shows an intent to build centrally and avoid both outlying areas and neighborhoods.

Other map changes simply reinforce what's already here. A design plan for the Seabright neighborhood, to lessen conflicts between residents of older one-story houses and the newer two-and-a-half to three-story homes. Markings indicating possible shuttle parking, regional retail and creative studios in the Harvey West Park territory. And finally, crosshatches across the industrial Westside indicating a wish to intensify the presence of business incubators, a transformation already in progress for which even more are currently proposed.

The General Plan 2025 land-use map is, in short, your best-practices global-warming-era plan, aiming at minimal traffic, maximum walkability, mixed-income housing and making services and employment available where people live. And it excels in staying away from wildlife and wild lands, keeping new development on central transit corridors, building inward and upward, and considering the needs of every economic class, from tenants to artists to businesses, with no one excluded from the deal.

Both Larson and Lane are proud of that. Says Lane: "we were able to strike a good balance between maintaining environmental and neighborhood protection and the need for expanding and improving our local economy. There seemed to be real consensus."

And Larson: "The city already has an incredible record in reducing its energy footprint; this will carry that further, and perhaps provide metrics for others."

After all, general plans are all about the future. What does director Larson want to see by the end of the plan, in 2025? "My kids will be in their early twenties then, and I hope that they come back and say that the river is the best thing about downtown, the air is just as clean, and that they have fine jobs that let them live here."

But then, "we still have a lot of work ahead of us. We're not done."


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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