At last week’s meeting of the California Coastal Commission, Commissioner Martha McClure ranted against the City of Santa Cruz’s controversial new law banning recreational vehicles from parking overnight. She has begun to feel exasperated, she tried to explain, with cities that make criminals out of the poor and homeless. Just then, a shout reverberated through the hotel meeting room.
“Good, because Santa Cruz won’t have to host all of them, so thank you for your consistency!” someone blurted out from the sparsely populated room on the second floor of the Hilton Santa Cruz.
It was City Councilmember Richelle Noroyan, yelling from the seventh row.
Three other women sitting with Noroyan began yelling along, as a back-and-forth erupted between Noroyan and Coastal Commission Chair Steve Kinsey.
“Excuse me. You’re an elected official—you should know better,” a frustrated Kinsey barked back at Noroyan, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
Looking back on the encounter, Noroyan, who was ultimately ejected from that Aug. 10 meeting, says that her anger toward the California Coastal Commission had been festering for weeks. She believes the commission has singled out the City of Santa Cruz’s law despite the fact that it’s similar to measures 21 other coastal cities have enacted without so much as a peep from the commission. The laws passed by those other cities, she believes, have forced more RV-driving transients toward Santa Cruz.
However, she says the experience has humbled her.
“I beat myself up for doing that, because I am critical of those who do this at council,” says Noroyan. The City of Santa Cruz’s meeting rules, last updated two years ago, allow the council to indefinitely bar anyone who becomes too “boisterous.”
“Moving forward, I will be less judgmental of people who do that,” Noroyan adds, “because sometimes your emotions and frustrations get the best of you.”
Ultimately, the commission voted 11-1 to uphold an appeal that claimed Santa Cruz’s rule cuts back on critical coastal access. The lone dissenting voice in support of the law came from Kinsey, who had just thrown Noroyan out. Commissioners also directed staff to investigate the issue further.
Robert Norse, the homeless advocate gadfly who filed the Coastal Commission appeal against the city, admits that even he was surprised by the outcome.
The City Council originally passed its oversized vehicle rule at a May 24 meeting, during which Noroyan proposed a motion to enact the ban without the support of the Coastal Commission, which had called city staffers about the matter at the 11th hour, the day of the meeting. Her motion failed.
Noroyan, a vocal supporter of the RV crackdown, says complaints from locals prompted the rule, with many residents expressing anger at large vehicles parking for long periods on city streets, taking up multiple spots and often leaving trash behind.
Noroyan and Deputy City Manager Scott Collins mentioned such complaints at the Coastal Commission meeting, arguing that the city’s plan ensures public safety. Local residents have found discarded needles in areas where RVers are known to stay, Collins told the commission, and bike thefts also spiked in these neighborhoods. The city has also had problems with RV campers dumping waste onto the streets, he added.
But in lecturing Noroyan and Collins, coastal commissioners sounded unconvinced and unimpressed by the city’s presentation.
Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders said that, anecdotes aside, the city did not prove a connection between RV users and crime—a point which McClure also emphasized. “I’m getting very frustrated with communities that have this tendency to identify anyone who is homeless as a chronic drug user or chronic thief or somebody who is not on the right side of the law,” McClure said.
City staffers had suggested that RVs could possibly park at local businesses or in church parking lots, but admitted they did not know of specific churches or businesses willing to offer their lots.
“It seems like they want us to demonstrate that there will be parking spaces, so we’ll have to look at that,” Collins said after the vote.
Collins says the city will not enforce the rule—which would have still allowed RV drivers to purchase overnight parking permits—until the matter gets sorted. Santa Cruz City Attorney Tony Condotti says the Coastal Commission’s appeal process is lengthy and involved, adding that it would probably cause “several months of delay” in the city’s ability to implement the ordinance.
At the same meeting, protesters showed up with signs criticizing a sand-mining operation in Marina that the Coastal Commission has been trying to shut down. The commission also got an update on the search for a replacement of popular Executive Director Charles Lester, who was fired in a controversial vote this past winter. Jack Ainsworth, the senior deputy director, has served as interim executive director since March, and a recruiting firm will begin its search for a permanent replacement this month.
When it comes to the RV rule, Noroyan asserts that the city’s way of handling homeless issues is “not within the purview of the Coastal Commission.”
“The RV issue is important, but how we were being treated by the Coastal Commission became even bigger,” she says. “It’s an unequal application of standards.”
It isn’t the first time someone has made such claims. The Coastal Commission heard a loud public outcry in Santa Cruz when it denied approval of both the Arana Gulch Multi-Use Trail in 2010 and the La Bahia hotel project in 2011—both of which were approved in later years.
Commissioner Wendy Mitchell concedes that the commission needs to develop a policy on coastal access and RV ordinances, rather than tackle these matters on a city-by-city basis. In the meantime, McClure asked the enforcement division to look at the RV ordinances of the 21 other coastal cities in California that have enacted similar bans.
Other commissioners reminded everyone that the principal charge of the commission is to ensure that the public is able to access the beach. “From our perspective,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said, “we need to be careful about how this impacts people of all economic spectrums’ ability to access the coast.”