The Mayor and City Council, in my view, have demonstrated that a progressive, pro-environment City of Santa Cruz can also have a strong, serious economic development policy, and that it can all come together in a project such as the La Bahia proposal that was in front of the California Coastal Commission in mid-August.
The project was a decade in the making—which means negotiations with the city, various segments of the community, and lengthy discussions with the Coastal Commission staff—and resulted in a 6-0 vote at the City Council, and a recommendation for approval from the Coastal Commission staff. Typically, it was not a walk in the park at either venue.
Even after many days, I continue to be in stunned disbelief that there is some mythical “precedent” that would have been set if the Coastal Commission had approved the project; and that such a “mythical” precedent would have caused a cascade of similar Local Coastal Plan amendments or variances from other communities. The “precedent-setting nature” of the proposal was the hook that the Coastal Commissioners who opposed the project hung their arguments on.
Frankly, in my view, there was no precedent here at all. The Coastal Act, the related statutes, and case law all contemplated LCP amendments and what amount to variances, in tightly limited circumstances. If that were not the case, then the Coastal Commission should have done away with LCP amendments years ago. They have not because there is a legitimate role for such a tool to be used in limited circumstances, and the La Bahia was certainly such a case.
Beyond the issue of whether or not there was any precedent here, there is the issue of leadership. I am not trying to hurt myself by patting myself on the back, but when faced with a critically important matter for the community (the then-proposed Pajaro Valley High School) during my service in the California Assembly, I spent seven months holding community-based negotiations every single Friday afternoon and into the evening (the City of Watsonville, the County of Santa Cruz, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, the Coastal Commission, and the environmental community). The result of that intensive work on the part of all parties was the approval (with an LCP amendment, I might add) of the much-needed high school, an interlocking agreement that no further development would take place west of Highway 1 in the Pajaro Valley, and the support of a significant element of the environmental community (including Watsonville Wetlands Watch and CAFF, among others). The point here is not to say “Hey, look at how swell I am,” but to say that such situations are ripe for public officials to get in and work like hell, and see if a positive outcome can be achieved. Such leadership was not exercised by our community’s representative on the Coastal Commission, and the outcome was and will continue to be a major loss for our community on so many fronts.
At this point I could go on about why I still do not understand why a segment of the building trade’s unions (who have always supported my electoral ventures) were willing to not only take 100 percent of nothing instead of 70 percent of something, or I could inquire of my friends at SEIU (who have also always supported my bids for public office) why they, who have a direct and ongoing stake in the $700,00 annual revenue that would be produced by this now-dead project, sat on the sidelines and allowed their brothers and sisters in the trades to give away many of their jobs. Instead, I want to share something that happened at the Coastal Commission hearing that is counter to everything that I know about and have come to expect from our great community.
The City of Santa Cruz had asked that I lead off the community testimony in favor of the project at the Coastal Commission. Following that testimony, local activist Ralph Meyberg, who said that he was there as a member of the local environmental community, came up to me and said, “You will be visited by the ghost of Mardi Wormhoudt.” Needless to say, I was speechless. Mardi Wormhoudt was one of the most dedicated, intelligent, and hard-working public officials that this community has ever produced. You could disagree with her, but there was not ever an ambiguity as to her beliefs or advocacy. Her passing from this community left a giant hole in many of our hearts, mine included. For Mr. Meyberg to invoke her memory as a weapon is the single most despicable act that I have witnessed in my 30 years in public life in this wonderful community.
Thanks to the private sector folks who were willing to risk their capital to invest in our community. Thanks to the public sector elected officials and staff at the City and the Coastal Commission who worked so hard to shape this project so that it could have been approved. Thanks to the broad range of folks from throughout our community who stood together (some for the first time) in support of the proposed project. Also, a question to those who opposed the project: If not this, then what? If not here, then where? This is not 1970 or 1980 or 1990, when we were still fighting for the soul of the community. That battle is over, and we, the progressive community, won. The battle now is how to sustain our lovely growth-controlled, greenbelt-protected, environmentally aware, socially progressive community. I dare say it is not by crushing ideas such as the La Bahia.
This may, unfortunately, be the end of this project, but it is not the end of this matter.
Fred Keeley is the elected Treasurer of the County of Santa Cruz. He represented this area in the California State Assembly from 1996 through 2002. Mr. Keeley is a trustee of the California Ocean Science Trust, and has authored the two largest park and environmental protection bonds in the nation’s history, as well as the Marine Live Management Act.