Coastal Commission approves Arana Gulch plan, opponents fight on
The 10 to one vote of “approval with conditions” by the California Coastal Commission at their Dec. 8 meeting given to the City of Santa Cruz for the newest version of their Arana Gulch Master Plan was seen as a victory for supporters. It was the commission’s third review of the plan in two years. With slight changes each time, the basic idea is still to pave selected trails and build two bridges over portions of the 68-acre greenbelt between the Eastside of Santa Cruz and Live Oak north of the Upper Harbor.
City Parks and Recreation Director Dannettee Shoemaker says the project will provide access to the gulch for people with disabilities and children in strollers, as well as for others for whom walking the existing trails is difficult.
A Seabright resident in a wheelchair brought Shoemaker’s point home at the Dec. 8 meeting, telling the crowd that his enjoyment of the space has, thus far, only been possible through photographs. The one public access point at the top of the meadow on Agnes Street is not wide enough to get a wheelchair through. The other, at the bottom behind the Santa Cruz Upper Harbor, is wide enough, but it leads to trails that are a challenge to any set of wheels in their current state.
“We are excited about opening it up to everyone while enhancing protections to the environment,” Shoemaker said.
The latest plan includes using permeable pavement of a light tone to lay about a half mile of paths in the northern parts of the gulch. Given that these sections are heavily used, the bridges will have benches to observe the habitat without interference and the permeable pavement will allow the ground to soak up water rather than cause further erosion, which is one issue the city aims to address through the Master Plan.
The commission and city officials are hopeful that fences and signs will limit traffic to these few trails in order to allow a tarplant comeback. The plant is known to grow only in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, although a few are found in other parts of Northern California.
The plant maintains its largest numbers in the area west of the Upper Harbor where there is no public access point. More than 100,000 were counted in this section of the gulch in 1986, but the population has since declined steeply, according to the Coastal Commission staff report read on Dec. 8 by Coastal Planner Susan Craig of the commission’s Santa Cruz office. This is currently the least used part of the gulch. Craig says no tarplants have been found between the Upper Harbor Dry Boat Yard and Agnes Street, where more heavily trafficked trails are, since 2004.
Friends of Arana Gulch co-founder Jean Brocklebank says that signs marking authorized trails will have little effect on people intent on trekking to more distant parts of the gulch.
“People go where they want to go,” she says, “and pavement is a magnet to skateboarders [and] motorcycles, and brings these and other unintended consequences. They can work on all the problems of the endangered species and accessibility without the paved paths.”
The changes in paving materials and emphasis on educational tours by the Santa Cruz Museum Of Natural History found in the most recent plan don’t change what Brocklebank believes to be the overarching motives. She believes the bridges are an outdated solution to connect the Eastside with Live Oak from more than a decade ago, when there were no bike lanes on much of Soquel Avenue.
“Of the 78-page Master Plan, if you draw a line through the Broadway-Brommer bike path parts, you have about four pages of text,” she says.
Most of the conservation efforts will be focused on the 14 acres of the gulch that are used least by people currently and still have the strongest population of tarplants. City staff and the Coastal Commission also feel that a key piece of the plan is to bring back the grazing of cattle.
“The decline of the tarplant coincides with the end of cattle grazing in the 1980s,” says Craig. “This continued decline shows that grazing may be essential to the vitality of the tarplant in Arana Gulch.”
Friends Of Arana Gulch say recent momentum of the newest Master Plan will not stop their fight against any tinkering with the habitat that they say will do more harm than good.
The city council approved the plan—now estimated to cost $5 million to complete—in November on the condition that the Coastal Commission gave the go ahead.
Although the coastal commission gave it a 10-one approval, the vote did have some strings attached. The city must now clarify how they plan to gauge progress of the tarplant’s revival. They must also recruit members of the California Native Plant Society and other biologists to oversee management of the process.
The city has committed an estimated $500,000 to fund this staff, which they plan to raise by selling or leasing excess city properties. Shoemaker is optimistic they will meet these standards.
“Most modifications [to the plan] had to do with whether we were going to count the increase in numbers of plants or percentages—basically the tools of measuring the success,” says Shoemaker.
While city officials are optimistic that they have made a leap toward starting construction, Brocklebank says it “will take years” to meet the list of conditions set by the commission.
“Building two bridges over Arana Gulch was a bad idea 15 years ago and it’s a bad idea now,” she says.
Photo: Keana Parker