Cover Stories

Saving Lighthouse Field

Decades after community members first rallied to save Lighthouse Field, it needs saving once more

Gary Patton, who began his political career in Santa Cruz in the 1970s, says the fight against development in Lighthouse Field transformed Santa Cruz politics. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Lighthouse Field, the 38-acre coastal meadow on West Cliff Drive, is one of several wooded places in the city where the homeless sleep at night. In a way, the field is a perfect respite. Low-slung cypresses and pines create private nooks, where people can hide from the trails. There’s less foot traffic than there is downtown, so anyone sleeping there is unlikely to be woken at night.    

The field, a state park, also has fewer patrols than it used to. The California Department of Parks and Recreation reluctantly bought the field in 1981 after a failed development project, and as part of the deal, the city began managing the park, with financial help from the county. In 2007, the deal expired and the city and county decided the $200,000 annual maintenance cost was too high. Management of the field fell to the cash-strapped state parks system.

A walk around the field’s eastern half reveals at least six makeshift latrines under the trees, littered with used toilet paper, feminine pads and human waste. Needles, spoons and other evidence of drug use are also regularly found by maintenance crews.

Former city councilmember Mike Rotkin lives next to the field, and says every night someone sleeps in a car on his street. Around sunset, when the rangers close the field’s parking lots, he sees people with packs and sleeping bags walk through his neighborhood toward the field.

“The average numbers are probably around 15 to 20 people,” Rotkin says. “And it ranges from a person who plops down a sleeping bag to people who drag mattresses and trash and camp stoves and bicycle parts and all that kind of stuff.”


What Lighthouse Field Means to Santa Cruz

In 1972, plans were approved for a high-rise hotel, convention center, shopping mall and condominium complex in Lighthouse Field. A group of concerned residents quickly formed the Save Lighthouse Point Association, which began meeting in living rooms to figure out how to stop the behemoth project.

They hired Gary Patton, then a young environmental lawyer, who realized that nobody except the city council, developers and business leaders, wanted construction.

LIGHT SOURCE The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which now houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, was built in 1967, and is now one of Santa Cruz's most iconic buildings.

LIGHT SOURCE The Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, which now houses the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, was built in 1967, and is now one of Santa Cruz’s most iconic buildings.

“Most people thought it was a horrible idea, but they didn’t know there was any way to stop it,” Patton says.

He wrote a 1974 ballot measure—the first initiative to go on the ballot since the city’s 1948 charter—that passed decisively, eliminating any city funding of the proposed development.

Around the same time, the newly formed California Coastal Commission rejected the project, another nail in the coffin.

Patton, who became a county supervisor in 1975 and served two decades, says the Lighthouse Field victory completely changed local politics. At the time, the county was the fastest-growing in the state and the fifth fastest-growing in the nation. There were plans for a freeway through the city’s center and for high rises for the entire Eastside. The county’s goal was to have a population of half a million by the year 2000, which of course, was never realized.

Before the movement, Patton says, “Nobody believed that the people could actually be in charge of the government. In other words, the elected officials—really, it’s not unlike what’s going on in the national campaign right now—the official elected representatives really didn’t represent the people. They represented the people who had money—the business community and the developers.”

Local politicians were known for being pro-growth and pro-development, until Patton won his board of supervisors race in 1974.

“What happened right then is that the public woke up that we were headed to be like Silicon Valley and nobody here wanted that,” Patton says. “And there was something we could do about that. We could change local politics.”

“What happened right then is that the public woke up that we were headed to be like Silicon Valley and nobody here wanted that. And there was something we could do about that. We could change local politics.” — Gary Patton

Other prominent local politicians came out of the movement: Katherine Beiers, Bert Muhly, Sally DiGirolamo and Carole De Palma, members of the Save Lighthouse Point Association, joined city council. Andy Schiffrin, another association member, became Patton’s administrative analyst. John Laird, also a member, joined city council in 1981 and later became a state assemblyman.

“Everybody who had sort of assumed there was nothing that could be done, decided, wait, maybe if we got involved in local politics, we could change the way things are happening,” Patton says. “So that was what was so significant. It galvanized approximately 20 years of very intense political involvement.”

Today, Lighthouse Field is one of California’s last remaining coastal headlands in an urban area. It has a protected area for migrating monarch butterflies, which nest in clusters on eucalyptus trees at the field’s northern edge. A historic red brick lighthouse overlooks Steamer Lane, a world-class surf break, at the field’s southern edge. Dog walkers, families, tourists and others hike its network of trails, and in June, Steamer Lane Supply, a sandwich and ice cream shop, opened in the field’s existing building.  

Since the 1980s, plans for sports fields and other facilities in Lighthouse Field have been presented, but each idea failed.

“It’s fair to say that the natural park, while it takes some maintenance, takes less than if it were not,” Patton says. “There was an overwhelming public sentiment to keep it natural. I hear it from people all the time who remember that I had something to do with it, and they always say, ‘Thank god you saved Lighthouse Field just natural.’”


A New Deal?

But can it be saved now? Every so often, rangers sweep for illegal campers, as they did in early June, with off-hour patrols. The first morning, they found 15 homeless people, directing them to services and issuing citations. By the week’s end, they found only one or two, as word of the patrols spread, according to Bill Wolcott, state parks public safety superintendent.

Many of those displaced went to Seabright State Beach. The patrols required extra funding and were meant to be short-lived, according to state parks staff. When the patrols stop, the homeless will most likely return.

“I’m a firm believer in local government and local control. And when the city and the county were providing the resource in managing the park, they were never very far from the people, and when you have issues, people address them.” — John Laird

State parks crews are ill-equipped to deal with waste left by illegal campers, with a six-person crew maintaining not just Lighthouse Field and the neighboring Its Beach, but also Wilder Ranch State Park, Natural Bridges State Beach and the Santa Cruz Mission. Five years ago, that crew was twice as large.

Santa Cruz resident John Laird is now California’s secretary for natural resources and oversees the California Department of Parks and Recreation. He says the agency doesn’t have the resources that the city and county had when they were in charge.

“In other places, there were long-established relationships in management, and this was thrown into the state budget in its 31st year of operation as a park,” Laird says. “And it probably has not gotten the attention financially from the state that it should have once the city and the county stepped away.”

When the Lighthouse Field deal expired in 2007, Laird was a state assemblymember. He brokered a deal that would have allowed the city to buy the field for $1.3 million, but the city balked, believing it would have to pay another $1 or $2 million for an environmental review, says Laird.

“I did the most impossible thing you can imagine,” Laird says. “I got language into the state budget that allowed for the state to sell the state park to the city. I can’t tell you how hard that was.”

It’s only happened one other time in history, he says. Since it’s written in law, a deal is still possible if the city ever wanted to step forward.

Likely, part of the reason the city was wary of a deal in 2007 was that in 2003, the city was sued by opponents of off-leash dog hours at Its Beach. The city lost, and was directed to conduct an environmental study to continue off-leash hours. The city declined, and began issuing citations for off-leash dogs.

The field was better managed by the city, says Laird.

“I’m a firm believer in local government and local control. And when the city and the county were providing the resource in managing the park, they were never very far from the people, and when you have issues, people address them,” Laird says. “And I think when you have a broad parks system and you have a whole region and you have to patrol the beaches on the north coast or Henry Cowell or Nisene Marks or New Brighton Beach or Manresa or any of the other parks in the system, it’s all about allocating resources.”


Sleeping Problem

Nearly every Tuesday for a year, a group of homeless people and protesters have slept outside the city council chambers, hoping to gain political attention. They call themselves the Homeless Freedom Sleepers, and they’re fighting for the right to sleep outside, which is currently illegal in Santa Cruz.

The city is increasingly ticketing people for illegal camping, but resources for homeless people are not improving, says Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, one of the movement’s organizers.

Since the Homeless Services Center cut its programs last July, the transient community has had a rough year, McHenry says. Now fewer than two dozen emergency shelter beds exist for hundreds of homeless people in Santa Cruz. They have no choice but to sleep outside, then are woken several times a night and told to move—what he calls a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Freedom Sleepers have not been able to change any laws. On March 8, Councilmember Don Lane introduced legislation that would allow people to sleep outside, but not in a blanket or sleeping bag.

Lane wrote in his report that illegal-camping laws and park curfews are necessary. But if shelters don’t exist and people have nowhere to go, citing people for sleeping criminalizes homelessness, he said.

“I continue to wonder what the harm is from the act of sleeping or wrapping oneself in a blanket on a cold night,” Lane writes. “And, more importantly, I wonder what the harm is when a government penalizes people for behavior they cannot and should not avoid.”

His proposal was voted down, a major blow to the Freedom Sleepers.

Then on June 28 the council outlawed overnight parking of oversized vehicles on city streets and lots, except for residents with permits. The law targets homeless people who park their RVs along the coast.

Mayor Cynthia Mathews says the ordinance was formed after years of complaints about the trash and waste left by people in RVs. It’s part of a varied approach to the problem, which includes a subcommittee tasked with prioritizing resources for the homeless and a treatment program for repeat offenders, she says.

However, exactly how much the city and county has spent on homeless services is unclear, since funding is tracked only for each program, and not homeless services as a whole.

What is clear, however, is that it’s getting harder for homeless people to sleep outside in the city.

Since 2012, the city Parks and Recreation Department has increased fencing and security at its city parks.

In 2014, a curfew was approved for Cowell Beach, which neighbors Lighthouse Field.

“The purpose was to reduce the number of needles, glass, feces, and other misconduct that was occurring during the night,” reads a city parks report.

The same year, the city council also passed an ordinance allowing city officers to order cited users to vacate the park or beach for 24 hours. This year, a new ranger position was also added.

From 2012 to 2014, the number of citations issued by park rangers increased by more than six-fold.

Mathews says that the increase in citations is not due to a city initiative, but to public complaints. Residents are increasingly reporting homeless people to 911. Once in a while, the city sweeps its encampments, clearing trash and issuing citations in the city’s greenbelts.

“There’s no conscious moving of people from point A to point B,” Mathews says. “Enforcement of camping prohibition is done by complaint in the more populated parts of the city, and it’s done for environmental cleanup and protection in our open spaces.”

Martín Bernal, city manager, agrees.

“I don’t think the city is pushing people out at night. The city’s just responding,” Bernal says. “We don’t really have a choice. If somebody calls and complains about illegal activity, we’re sort of forced to do that. But again, I don’t think that’s a solution. I don’t think we want to do that. We need to provide places for people to go, alternatives, whether it’s housing, whether it’s services. And that’s what’s lacking.”

The city’s influence on public health issues is limited to decisions on funding for the few local nonprofits. For example, the city doesn’t administer the needle exchange or housing for the homeless. It partners with existing groups.

“We don’t have a health department or a human services department. We don’t get money to do that, so we’re kind of removed from the expertise and the programs and issues around that. We tend to do what we have at our disposal, which is enforcement,” Bernal says.

But until better solutions are found for Santa Cruz’s homelessness issues, its problems in Lighthouse Field are not likely to go away, either.

“We’d rather focus on helping people get out of homelessness than giving people a ticket,” Bernal says. “We realize that’s not solving the problem. It’s just moving it.”

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