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Capitola’s Trestle Mania and Other Big Ballot Measures

Political battles are brewing over rail trail, rent control and financial oversight

A judge ruled that any questions about Greenway Capitola’s ballot measure would be better decided after the November election. PHOTO: WILL MAYALL

Activists in Santa Cruz County’s smallest city got the green light this week to move forward with a vote that has the potential to play an outsized role in the future of Santa Cruz County transportation planning.

Judge John Gallagher ruled on Monday, Aug. 20 in favor of Greenway Capitola petitioners, allowing their ballot measure on the rail trail to proceed to the Nov. 6 election. Environmental attorney Sara Clark, who represented the Greenway side, says she wasn’t surprised by the ruling, even though Capitola officials had expressed concerns about the measure’s wording.

“In elections law, there’s a pretty standard rule that most challenges to an initiative are best ruled on after the voters have a chance to weigh in,” Clark says.

And it isn’t just the Greenway Capitola measure that voters are talking about this election season. With the November election fast approaching, discussions over a few closely watched local ballot initiatives—on topics like rent control and finance—have begun heating up.

THOROUGHFARE

The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) has plans to build a bike and pedestrian path along the county’s coastal railroad tracks and leave room for future rail transit—an approach the commission is currently evaluating in its Unified Corridor Study. But supporters of Santa Cruz County Greenway have been pining for a different approach, given their concerns about the high costs of the rail-with-trail plan, and questions about ridership estimates they say are too meager to have any impact. Greenway supporters envision a wider trail along the length of the corridor with no train tracks.

Parts of the rail corridor are rather narrow, and the rail trail’s official guiding document, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Master Plan, is unclear about where certain bike and pedestrian detours may be needed—particularly in Capitola. In order to build a bike path that spans the valley over Soquel Creek Water District, construction crews would likely need to build a brand new bridge—about 200 feet long and a few dozen feet high.

Measure L, the new Greenway Capitola initiative, essentially asks voters what sounds like a simple question: Do you support keeping the bike and pedestrian path on the protected corridor, instead of detouring it onto city streets?

Most people expect Capitola voters to say “yes,” which is why the measure could have an impact going forward, even if it technically will have no impact on the decisions of the RTC. Most measure supporters don’t want a train on the tracks.

But Capitola City Attorney Tony Condotti sees the wording as “impermissively vague.” He says that the initiative conflicts with existing city plans and complicates efforts to make needed bike infrastructure improvements nearby, including spur trails shooting off the main route.

Clark argues that the measure’s language is actually pretty straightforward, and says that Capitola staffers and council “were manufacturing inconsistencies where there weren’t any.”

Capitola Councilmember Stephanie Harlan says this all could have been a lot simpler if the measure just asked whether or not residents support a train.

However, there’s still reason to believe that everyone—both rail and trail supporters—could get what they want, no matter what the outcome of the measure. The RTC has already signaled an interest in making room for both rail and trail through Capitola.

This past June, at the suggestion of Friends of the Rail and Trail Chair Mark Mesiti-Miller, the commission made minor adjustments to its five-year spending projections, as it finalized its new plan. The RTC allocated $50,000 to study building a new bridge through Capitola that could accommodate both rail and trail.

RENT SEEKING

In the city of Santa Cruz, rebuttals to arguments over a controversial rent control measure are due Friday, Aug. 24.

Things got ugly earlier this summer after opponents of the measure initially missed the deadline to file arguments against Measure M, the rent control measure, while supporters of the measure met the deadline. The situation was cause for concern among landlords and rent control opponents. To the initiative’s supporters, it all seemed to good to be true—given the hundreds of thousands of dollars that opponents had already raked in, between local fundraising and cash from outside organizations.

But city staffers admitted they had erred in setting the deadlines unnecessarily early and that the guidelines were confusing, and the city may have even opened itself up to a lawsuit in the process.

With four members recused from a heated public meeting on the topic, the Santa Cruz City Council voted 4-0 to give both supporters and opponents more time to submit statements.

The irony of giving the landlords extra time was not lost on rent control advocates.

“Tenants live with deadlines that have real consequences,” Cynthia Berger, an organizer with the Santa Cruz Tenants Association, said at the meeting earlier this month. “If I don’t pay my rent, that’s immediate grounds for a three-day pay or quit notice.”

BILLING NOTICE

Capitola City Councilmember Jacques Bertrand has fond memories of his days as the city’s treasurer, a position that’s now facing a referendum.

“The main thing is people want to know where their money goes, and that’s what the treasurer does,” explains Bertrand, who remembers discovering ways to make to improve the Capitola’s finances in his four-year term from 2008 to 2012.

But the city’s current treasurer Peter Wilk, who Bertrand sought out for the position, says he doesn’t see any reason for voters to elect a treasurer at all, as many of its roles overlap with other authorities like the finance director, auditors and the Financial Advisory Committee. Additionally, Wilk says the budget is very transparent to the general public, and the treasurer has no clearly defined power. Most other jurisdictions—including every other local government in the county—have no elected treasurer position.

The Capitola City Council voted unanimously to place Measure K on the ballot to remove the treasurer as an elected position and instead make it an appointed one. Wilk and some city councilmembers have even floated the idea of eliminating the job altogether. Bertrand has serious reservations about it all, as he feels the treasurer position provides a sense of financial transparency.

Councilmember Harlan has warned Bertrand that she won’t support him in his reelection bid this year if he actively campaigns against the initiative. While Bertrand hasn’t hit the streets in opposition, he says he’s been having conversations with residents about the measure. He worries taking a stand could sink his reelection campaign, but it hasn’t dissuaded him from raising concerns.

Also in this year’s City Council race are former Capitola Mayor Sam Storey, ironworker Jack Digby and Yvette Brooks, of the county education office.

Bertrand concedes that the city of Capitola has had at least one activist treasurer in the past, who tested the limits of the position and developed a “caustic” relationship with city officials, but he sees that ordeal as an outlier.

Bertrand admits that it stings a little to see Wilk—who he believes is doing a great job—argue against a position Bertrand took so seriously, but he insists that isn’t his primary motivation in questioning the new measure.

“The reason I’m talking to you is I want the debate,” Bertrand says. “Peter brought up things that need to be talked about. We’re friends—the fact that I don’t like his conclusions doesn’t make him a bad guy.”

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor at Good Times, won the 2014 award for best local government coverage from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. A longtime basketball and football fanatic, Jacob has evolved into a shameless fair weather fan and band wagoner for hot West Coast sports teams. He also enjoys arguing with others about where to find the best burrito in town.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Caymus

    August 25, 2018 at 4:15 pm

    The rail/bike trail is a ridiculous and costly idea. Anybody who has walked the railroad tracks completely and evaluates the existing trestles knows just how decrepit ,rotten,and dangerous many of these trestles are. These trestles must be rebuilt. Here is the problem: Rebuilding these trestles to accommodate a train is MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE than rebuilding them to accommodate bicycles. Instead of a rail ride to nowhere for people commuting to workplaces nowhere near the rail line,a bicycle trail would allow commuters easy and safe access to pedal to work. Use common sense and observe how the Monterey Peninsula has a very successful bike trail built over the old rail line.

    • Michael Lavigne

      October 21, 2018 at 6:23 am

      Well stated. Monterey and Pacific Grove have a beautiful trail used daily by thousands, and they figured out 30 years ago that a passenger and freight trail on a scenic ocean corridor with few local employers and a small population base makes no sense. It’s a $500+ Million taxpayer funded debacle with very low projected ridership, and will do nothing to decrease traffic congestion on Highway 1.

  2. Gavin R. Putland

    August 22, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    VACANCY TAX: BETTER THAN RENT CONTROL

    The trouble with rent control is that it doesn’t force owners to offer their properties “to let” at the allowed rent, let alone build more housing. On the contrary, it discourages both. Defenders say you can exempt NEW buildings in order to encourage construction. But that still doesn’t open up EXISTING buildings. Worse, it means that the stock of rent-controlled becomes a shrinking fraction of the whole — unless the exemption is only for a limited time, in which case you’re discouraging construction again!

    Better idea: Put a punitive tax on vacant lots and unoccupied housing, so that the owners can’t afford NOT to build housing and seek tenants! By reducing the owners’ ability to tolerate vacancies, a vacancy tax strengthens the bargaining position of tenants and therefore reduces rents.

    Such a tax, by reducing the cost of housing, would make it easier for employers to pay workers enough to live on. A similar tax on commercial property would reduce rents for job-creating enterprises. That’s GOOD FOR BUSINESS and GOOD FOR WORKERS.

    A vacancy tax is also GOOD FOR REALTORS because they get more rental-management fees for properties coming onto the rental market, plus commissions from any owners who decided to sell vacant properties to owner-occupants (who of course don’t pay the tax).

    Best of all, the need to avoid the vacancy tax would initiate economic activity, which would expand the bases of other taxes, allowing their rates to be reduced, so that the rest of the city/state/country gets a tax cut!

  3. Barry Scott

    August 21, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    If this measure passes and survives the challenges that may follow, I see two possible outcomes:
    A. The rail trail is built everywhere except in the City of Capitola, which will come last, or,
    B. For the benefit and use of all county residents and visitors, the county will remodel or rebuild it’s bridge to include both rail and trail, which is the ultimate outcome described in the C0astal Rail Trail Master Plan, already supported by the City Council through resolution.

    Capitola will see nothing but goodness coming from eventual implementation of light electric rail vehicles serving peoples’ needs along with a world class trail!

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