Quick Take:

A plan by the Santa Cruz County Parks Department to replace the dilapidated volleyball court at Felton Covered Bridge Park with a 10,000-square-foot mountain bike training ground, known as a pump track, has driven a wedge between residents. Some feel the county — citing budget and staffing issues — has handed over too much control of the project to a private group.

Near where Graham Hill Road meets Highway 9 in Felton, a quiet neighborhood park known for its historic wooden bridge has split the community in two.

Everyone agrees that the volleyball court at Felton Covered Bridge Park is a particularly offensive eyesore that needs to be removed. The unusable court is little more than a dirty sand pit marked by two rusted 8-foot-tall poles (presumably once used for a net). But the Santa Cruz County Parks Department’s plans to replace it with a 10,000-square-foot mountain bike training ground, known as a pump track, is dividing residents.

Supporters of the pump track say the project would be a positive addition to a community hungry for more youth-centered activities and will liven up an abandoned part of the park.

Opponents have a long list of grievances, many of which deal with the location. They fear the pump track could invade the view of the historic bridge; they worry about the type of people and traffic the track would attract. And, following the winter storms that saw floodwaters nearly reach the park’s bridge and inundate the nearby Felton Grove neighborhood, some have raised concerns about increased flood risk from putting an asphalt bicycle track where sand and grass currently sit. The legitimacy of those concerns is still to be studied by an expert from the county.

But the most contentious issue is that many feel the county — citing budget and staffing issues — handed over too much control of the project to a private group, Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship, a claim the county has denied. The nonprofit and advocacy organization spearheaded the pump track design and organized the first public meeting where it introduced the community to the design and proposal. County parks director Jeff Gaffney told Lookout that the county has “been in control of the project the whole time.”

That has sparked a charged debate — spilling into two recent packed and heated public meetings — with opponents fiercely challenging where all the support is coming from, and how a pump track became the county’s preferred option in the first place.

The project’s proponents say the intense backlash has caught them off guard. “When I had thought of this idea I had the entire community in mind,” Blair Zehm, who originally proposed the pump track idea last year, said during a tense public meeting last Wednesday at Felton Community Hall. “I definitely didn’t see what divide it would cause here in my hometown. Lots of false, negative statements about those involved. As long as I’ve been here, I’ve never seen our community come together like this.”

The volleyball court at Felton Covered Bridge Park that would become a bike pump track under a county parks plan.
The volleyball court at Felton Covered Bridge Park that would become a bike pump track under a county parks plan. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Zehm, a Felton business owner who grew up in the community, told the meeting he felt a pump track in the heart of a mountain-bike-loving community would be the perfect feature to activate this part of the small park.

According to Gaffney, Zehm brought the idea to District 5 County Supervisor Bruce McPherson last year, with a petition filled with 1,800 signatures from people around the San Lorenzo Valley region supporting the track. Gaffney said county parks did not verify where the signatures came from. Instead, the petition planted a seed in his department’s mind about the possibility of a pump track, which it began discussing on its own merits, not based on the idea’s popularity, something Gaffney emphasized several times throughout our conversation.

Given its strapped budget, the county parks department reached out to longtime financial partner Friends of Santa Cruz County Parks to see if it could fundraise and manage the project — something the department has often done with new park features. Friends didn’t have the time or the money, so it recommended Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship — a local nonprofit and advocacy organization with experience funding, building and maintaining pump tracks — take on the project. SCMTS, which has rebuilt and now maintains the Chanticleer Park pump track in Live Oak, agreed to help and began putting together a design.

In early August, Gaffney said the first community meeting introducing the public to SCMTS’ design was a county-led gathering, although SCMTS helped organize, promote and staff the meeting. Gaffney said hundreds of people attended, and “70 to 80%” of the room was supportive.

However, Brianna Goodman, a member of the Valley Women’s Club of San Lorenzo Valley, whose board of directors unanimously voted to oppose the project’s location, believes many of the pump track proponents at the meeting were supporters of SCMTS from out of town.

She said local residents were never given the chance to weigh in on what they wanted to see the park used for. “There was no initial open public discussion as to what the residents of Felton or San Lorenzo Valley might want to see replace the volleyball courts,” Goodman said via email. “We were only presented with the pump track option in a matter that made it seem like a done deal as soon as funding could be secured, and without any environmental review.”

Felton resident Virginia Wright said she attended the first meeting and put her email address down on a sheet she thought would sign her up for county updates on the project. Instead, she began receiving fundraising emails and action alerts directly from SCMTS.

The covered bridge at Felton Covered Bridge Park
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

During the second meeting last Wednesday, Wright said the perception that SCMTS, not the county, is running the public meetings has eroded trust between residents and the county. Goodman echoed those concerns: “Valley Women’s Club feels that hiring an advocacy group to design and build a project, and then also tasking them with outreach for that project, constitutes bias.”

McPherson told Lookout last week that allowing SCMTS to lead the first meeting was wrong. “I don’t think that was a good approach,” McPherson said. “I think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but I think there is going to be plenty more vetting before it comes to the supervisors for a final vote.”

Matt De Young, who has served as SCMTS’ executive director for seven years, said the email issue was a “mistake on our part,” but it has since been figured out. Although he said he is “unsurprised” by the rhetoric around the project, he feels the project has overwhelming support and disagrees with the notion that it has been a polarizing process.

“This project is not creating a rift in our community,” De Young told Lookout. “Many of the concerns have been addressed. I’m convinced that the people who have concerns about this track now will see it as an asset to the community once it’s built.”

However, the concerns about flooding will not receive full clarity until after the board of a supervisors vote to approve the project, Gaffney said. A board vote, Gaffney said, would allow fundraising for the project to begin, and fundraising will cover the cost of a hydrologist’s analysis.

“The hydrologist would not be available until after we have gone to the board of supervisors because we would have no money to pay [the hydrologist] until we have done the initial fundraising,” Gaffney said in an email.

So, where does the public process come in? The parks department, and bureaucracy more broadly, is not intended to be a political decision-maker, and so public opinion should not weigh heavily on how the department operates. However, the public is not totally left out of the process, Gaffney said. The public played a central role in drafting the park’s master plan, which designates the volleyball court area as “active recreation.” The county parks department, in its decision-making power, has determined that a pump track is consistent with the community-drafted master plan.

The meeting Wednesday was about trying to understand how the community in Felton felt and to answer the public’s questions, Gaffney said. That room, he said, was about 50-50, which he felt was a good enough level of support.

“We’ve had deep discussions about this — it went through the entire organization of the parks department and, really, that’s how you decide things when running the parks system,” Gaffney said. “It’s not, let’s just do whatever the public wants, but let’s talk about it from a park’s perspective. It’s not a popularity project.”

Gaffney emphasized that the department has not made a decision on the project yet. If his office does want to move forward, he said the public would still get another chance to have their voices heard when the track comes in front of the board of supervisors.

McPherson told Lookout he has not made up his mind on whether he’d support the project if county staff decide to recommend it to the board, but said parks department support would certainly influence his decision.

“I would have a tough time being against what [the parks department] says,” McPherson said. “They oversee directly the operations of the park and we want to get as much usage and enjoyment from the county parks as we can.”

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...