Some of your constituents are currently fighting a proposal before the City of Santa Cruz to build a 40-unit development just across the county line from their homes on Ocean Street Extension. Among their concerns are traffic and density impacts. How have county/city relations and disconnects played into this situation?
Land use decisions are the heart of any local jurisdiction’s authority and responsibility. Retaining local control over those decisions in an environment of increasing state regulation is key to any locally elected official. Whenever a jurisdiction, using its land use authority, considers a new project, it has the responsibility to consider the location and other details of its setting. But what happens when that project is located adjacent to constituents in a neighboring jurisdiction? In this case, the project is proposed within the city limits, but clearly affects residents county living in the neighborhood.
Let’s first consider the existing county neighborhood. The Ocean Street Extension neighborhood is very rural even though it is a short drive to downtown. There are large lots and it has a very open, quiet and natural feel to it. There are horses and row crops in the neighborhood. There is only one way in and one way out for folks living along the Ocean Street Extension and because of the weight limitations on the covered bridge across the San Lorenzo River, Ocean Street Extension is the only emergency access to a large number of homes in [the gated] Paradise Park [community]. There also is a very large cemetery across from the proposed development and a crematorium on an adjacent parcel.
The San Lorenzo River borders the neighborhood to the west and Graham Hill Road climbs above it to the east. The obvious concerns by the neighbors are traffic, drainage, emergency access and the density of the project. The traffic issues are obvious to anyone familiar with the area. There is only one way in or out and that way is on a narrow road and through an awkward intersection at Graham Hill Road. Drainage is a familiar issue to folks in the Fifth District. The slopes of the San Lorenzo Valley are notoriously unstable and the area between Graham Hill Road and Ocean Street Extension has seen its share of landslides. Emergency Access, as well, is an issue that is not normally seen the same way in the city. In rural areas, people know the limitations of emergency access and loathe seeing any development that worsens an already difficult situation. Finally, there is the issue of density. Neighbors are asking that the city carefully consider the effect of placing a large project in this particular location.
Modern land use planning doctrine is taking a closer look at the issue of density. When we make land use decisions alongside transportation decisions, for example, we are naturally led to desiring density along major transportation corridors and clustering areas of density to lessen their impact on surrounding, established neighborhoods. This also keeps development away from sensitive habitats, groundwater recharge areas and open space. The proposed project is in an area identified as coastal prairie, and would be an island of density surrounded by the cemetery, the crematorium, and steep slopes in a rural, quiet area of the county.
There also is the issue of air quality. In its normal operations, a crematorium can emit a number of potentially hazardous compounds into the air. Perhaps this is why the cemetery and crematorium were sited where they are when the city approved them a long time ago. They are both away from centers of the city. The city is currently looking into the air quality implication of placing this project so close to an operating crematorium.
Because the proposed project is within the city limits, the county does not have any direct way to weigh in on the city council’s decision. The county can, as a neighboring jurisdiction, comment on the city’s environmental review. I trust that the city’s staff and decision makers will consider the comments from county staff as well as those of the county residents who will be most directly affected by this proposed project.