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The Strange Journey of La Bahia

tom_honig_sIf you want to understand the politics of coastal California, look no further than the proposed La Bahia Hotel project in Santa Cruz.

You’ll be hearing a lot about the proposal as it heads to the state Coastal Commission for approval next month during the commission’s August meeting in Watsonville on Aug. 11, 12 and 13.

The La Bahia project has been much debated, and it’s a big deal in Santa Cruz. But beyond that, it’s an instructive tale about how awkward California’s political institutions really are.

The Santa Cruz City Council approved it more than two years ago. At that time, the council voted 5-1 to approve the La Bahia plan, a 125-room hotel project that would significantly upgrade the Beach Street area, and provide an economic boost to a city that could really use it.

But that’s hardly a signal to get the hammers out and start building. Next comes Coastal Commission approval, a process that is grindingly slow—and little understood by most Californians—even those who live here on the coast.

For a variety of reasons, more than two years have gone by since the city approved the plan, and the Coastal Commission will finally decide at its August meeting in Watsonville whether to give it the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Here’s what’s so strange about the Coastal Commission system: a big part of the cost-benefit analysis that you’d think goes into the decision isn’t even on the table.

Any economic benefit from the project is not part of the discussion. The commission’s role is narrowly defined. To understand why, you have to go back to the creation of the Coastal Commission.

It was established when voters passed the California Coastal Act in 1972. Essentially, voters were convinced that massive coastal development of that era endangered the environmental health of the coast. An equally big fear was that developers could possibly develop coastal land and then effectively cut off access to the general public.

So the Coastal Commission has evolved into a kind of appeals board over the kind of city decisions like Santa Cruz’s approval of the La Bahia project.

But here’s the rub. When the city examined whether to approve the project, it did what amounts to a cost-benefit analysis. The payoffs were many: increased city revenues, more local jobs, a much-needed higher-end hotel and meeting area that would bring more tourist dollars to town and a fix to a building that is in need of renovation.

But some folks protested. At issue was the height of the building—it was to be 14 feet higher than outlined by the city’s Local Coastal Plan—a document on file with the state Coastal Commission. That variance is why the entire project is in the Coastal Commission’s jurisdiction.

(A second issue has little to do with the actual building. The project is proposed by Barry Swenson Builder, which happens to be locked in a dispute with some building trade unions. That dispute has made some union leaders oppose the project.)

Now, as the Coastal Commission meeting draws near, the entire decision as to whether to allow a La Bahia Hotel to be built revolves around that 14-foot height variance.

As proponents and opponents prepare to face off at the Coastal Commission hearings, many of the main arguments over the La Bahia proposal won’t even be discussed. The city of Santa Cruz—which officially is the agency asking for commission approval—will argue that the proposal is in keeping with the Beach Street area and that it will increase public access to the coast by bringing in more visitors.

Opponents will argue that the 14-foot variance is an outrage—even though their reasons for opposing the project really have little to do with the height of the building.

But much of the actual arguments on both sides of the issue won’t be discussed—not the economic benefit and not the labor issue.

Some people warned 40 years ago that the establishment of regional agencies like the Coastal Commission—an unelected body with considerable power—would end up not really serving the best interests of the people of California.

In this case, elected officials from the city of Santa Cruz have decided that the La Bahia is a good idea. Yet their judgment is in danger of being overruled by a state agency that isn’t even going to consider some of the most important reasons leading to the decision.

Somehow, this system hardly seems like an example of good government.


Tom Honig is the writer of the Santa Cruz Observer, an online newsletter at tomhonig.com.

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