A Gulch in Limbo

news_arana_sunsetThe Arana Gulch Master Plan faces another round of review
There’s something spellbinding about Arana Gulch. Its wide-open spaces, sprawling oaks and seasonal wetlands exist in perfect harmony with the dense urban setting that surrounds it on all sides. It is uncommon to find such a natural, relatively untouched space surviving in a city, but Santa Cruz has managed to preserve Arana Gulch’s inherent beauty since the city purchased the land in 1994. The city has been planning to use this space to connect the Eastside with the rest of Santa Cruz with a bike path ever since, but has yet to gain full approval.

Supported by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), Ecology Action, People Power and, more recently, the Santa Cruz City Council and Board of Supervisors, this project has been a long time coming. But with such adamant support, why has it taken more than 15 years of reports, data and litigation for the Arana Gulch Master Plan (AGMP) to be reviewed by the Coastal Commission?

Arana Gulch was designated a “critical habitat” in 2002 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and is defined as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) by the California Coastal Act. There is an array of protected wildlife that call the Arana Gulch home, with the Santa Cruz tarplant being one of the most well known inhabitants because of its endangered species status. In addition to the tarplant, special status species in the Arana Gulch include the Great Blue Heron, Steelhead Trout and the San Francisco Dusky-Footed Woodrat. There is so much wildlife in such a small space (67.7 acres) that many have been left wondering if a paved path to connect Broadway and Brommer Street is worth the damage that will be done to this already threatened environment.

news_arana_gulch2The opposition to the AGMP, led by Friends of Arana Gulch (FOAG), does not want any part of this open space paved, nor do they want any of the species to be further jeopardized. Jean Brocklebank leads FOAG on the long fight to prevent the city from encroaching on the sensitive habitat. For Brocklebank, the fight is about enforcement of land use restrictions and ensuring that the City of Santa Cruz is accountable for the habitat restoration and enhancement plans put forth previously in the Interim Management Plan and currently in the AGMP.

“The city has had money to do tarplant management for 12 years and they were required to do it by their own 1997 Interim Management Plan, but they haven’t followed through,” says Brocklebank on a walk through Arana Gulch, where the ground is muddy from recent rains. “What we want is somebody to hold the city’s feet to the fire to make sure they do the management, but who is going to enforce that? Is there a Coastal Commission police officer?”

The California Coastal Commission released a Staff Recommendation on Feb. 24 that “recommends that the Commission approve a CDP (Coastal Development Permit) for the proposed project.” This recommendation comes with numerous conditions of approval, which must be met along with the official approval by the commission before the permit can be acquired. These conditions include wetland avoidance relocation of unpaved Arana Meadow Trail to avoid tarplant populations, abandoning all paths that are not included in the Master Plan, and restoring habitat on these abandoned paths.

This raises the question of what will potentially happen five, 10 or 15 years down the road if the city is no longer able to adhere to these conditions. The path, bridge and signage will already be in place. Will the habitat suffer because conditions of the approved permit cannot be enforced?

County Supervisor and member of the Coastal Commission Mark Stone says there are possible repercussions for the city if approval conditions aren’t followed. “It depends on the language of the permit, but if there’s a violation of the permit, the Commission uses a dispute resolution process,” says Stone. Although they hope it won’t come to this, it may ease the minds of the concerned local environmentalists if there are consequences for diverging from, or not completely adhering to, the exact nature of the permit.

The path has potentially great outcomes, as well—the most popular of which is a safer cross-town route for cyclists.  However, the Coastal Commission’s Thursday, March 11 hearing on the AGMP (which proponents were hoping would be the final vote of approval) ended on a note of delay.  The commission stated that the motives for the paved paths will have to be for more than transportation. “Putting this (bike path) through tarplant habitat is just not acceptable,” says Coastal Commission member Sara J. Wan. “From my perspective, the bike path needs to be removed from the plan.”

Currently, the only other alternative routes for cyclists are along busy Soquel Avenue to Capitola Road, or along Murray Street, which involves crossing the narrow harbor bridge. “According to law enforcement bike crash data from 2008 for Santa Cruz County, Soquel Avenue had the second highest number of bike crashes, 17, than any road in the county,” comments Piet Canin of Ecology Action. “The City and County of Santa Cruz ranked in the top three for the highest number of bike crashes with injuries for 2008 compared to other sites of similar size throughout California.”

There is no question that a safer bike route needs to be provided, but the city must now look at alternatives to paving a path directly though the center of Arana Gulch to find the answer. “Both Murray and Soquel are narrow, congested, and considered by all but the bravest and most dedicated bicyclists to be unsafe,” says Paul Scholhamer, supporter of the AMGP. “Without providing a better, safer route than we have today, we are not going to convert any of today’s short car trips.”

People Power, a local bicycle and human power advocacy group, would like to get as many cars off the road as possible and, with that in mind, they have fully supported the AGMP. Director Micah Posner believes that alternative bicycle access will get people out of their cars in exchange for a convenient bike ride across town.

“In Santa Cruz, even more so than the rest of the state, the transportation sector is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Posner. “In our city 47 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and 40 percent of all automobile trips are three miles or less.”

After 15 years of debates, developments and decisions, the Coastal Commission says their call to prolong approval once again is necessary to ensure that the tarplant habitat won’t be devastated. At this juncture, the city will have to implement a revised master plan for Arana Gulch that focuses on it as a habitat—rather than transportation—project.

Neither the city nor the Coastal Commission want another 15 years of debates. “Practically speaking, how do we save the tarplant?” asks Coastal Commissioner James Wickett, sympathizing with environmentalists, cyclists and the city. “There is simply no easy answer to this.”

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