Christopher Neely examines the next steps for the City of Santa Cruz’s oversized vehicle ordinance after the California Coastal Commission approved a one-year pilot last week.
This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.
The debate over how to treat recreational vehicles and campers parked along city of Santa Cruz streets has dragged on for 10 years. A decade of division, disputes and delays came to climax last Thursday, when the California Coastal Commission said the city could start planning to evict oversized vehicles that park along the city’s coastal areas between midnight and 5 a.m.
The city and its residents who live in their cars now enter the falling action of this elongated narrative arc. Although the Coastal Commission’s approval focused on the city’s coastal zone, it was only part of a larger citywide ban on parked RVs and campers Santa Cruz has been waiting to implement.
Ahead of their affirmative vote last Thursday, some members of the Coastal Commission acknowledged the ordinance was not perfect, but gave a nod to the city for pairing it with an alternative parking program for people living in their RVs and campers. A lot of work remains, but this, they said, was more than what other communities with similar oversized vehicle bans were doing.
“We’re going to assess how it goes and see what’s working and what’s not, and we’ll be making changes to address the issues that arise,” City of Santa Cruz Planning Director Lee Butler told me. “It’s going to be an iterative process, for sure.”
Butler estimates it will be “at least several months” before the city can begin ticketing people who park their oversized vehicles (longer than 20 feet and/or wider than 7 feet and/or taller than 8 feet) overnight along city streets. The city needs to come up with a plan to install signage and alert vehicle owners of the changes as well as where they can relocate to — and Coastal Commission staff needs to approve that plan — before it can begin enforcing the long-sought overnight ban, passed by a split city council in 2021. The Coastal Commission didn’t approve a permanent program, but rather a one-year pilot, during which the city, community and state will closely monitor the impacts before deciding whether to extend it.
Where can people go after the ban becomes effective? The city is touting its already active three-tiered safe parking program, which offers sanctioned parking spaces, mostly located downtown, for people living in RVs and campers. Tier 1 offers three spaces for one-night-only parking; Tier 2 can offer 30-day permits for up to 46 vehicles, but for overnight parking only; Tier 3 has capacity for up to 20 vehicles, depending on size, and offers indefinite 24-hour parking with social services aimed at placing people into stable housing situations.
As executive director of the houseless services organization Free Guide, Evan Morrison oversees the city’s Tier 3 program. He says Tier 3 has been at capacity and has a waitlist of roughly 60 vehicles. Morrison, who has been working in the houseless services space for more than six years, says he has deep concerns about the oversized vehicle ban but reserves hope for a successful rollout.
“At this moment, you know, my thought is let’s just see if it will work,” Morrison said. “We’ll see what costs are imposed on folks. I’m worried that a notable percentage of the RV-dwelling population will lose their RVs and end up on the street.”
Aside from the lucky few who land a high-demand space inside Tier 3 of the city’s parking program, Santa Cruz residents living out of their RVs and campers will have to move locations multiple times per day, as opposed to moving only every three days in accordance with the city’s current 72-hour parked vehicle rule. Morrison says that increases the cost of gas and wear on vehicles for an already vulnerable population.
Deborah Elston, president and co-founder of Santa Cruz Neighbors, says she thinks the ordinance finally going into effect will be a good thing for neighbors living in nearby houses and for the people living out of their RVs.
“The city has gone above and beyond in trying to work on these programs,” said Elston, who believes the community will continue to work out the kinks and ensure the program and ordinance work. “It’s going to take some time. It will be a better program at the end of the year than it is now. The city has gone far beyond what other cities with similar ordinances have done.”
Reggie Meisler, a member of the ordinance-opposing Santa Cruz Cares, says community engagement is going to be important if the city wants an ordinance that lasts more than a year. In order to continue the ordinance after the current permit expires on May 11, 2024, the city will need to reapply for a new permit from Coastal Commission staff. If a community member disagrees with how the ordinance is being implemented, they can appeal and potentially send the new permit through the same elongated process.
“I’m hoping that means the city will proactively work with us and let us redesign how Tier 1 and Tier 2 parking operates,” Meisler said. “Through that process, I hope we can get to something we all agree on as neighbors.”
Homeless encampment clearouts, again: The City of Santa Cruz is preparing yet another homeless encampment clearout, targeting the Pogonip site along Highway 9 by the end of May, according to city documents. This comes only seven months after the city cleared the Benchlands encampment, a move that sent many houseless residents to Pogonip. Now, the city says that encampment has “grown into an environmental crisis” that presents a “significant threat to public safety, health and welfare.”
Fifth District watch: No, incumbent County Supervisor Bruce McPherson has not divulged any plans for the future, despite widespread predictions that he will not seek reelection when his term ends next year. Unlike other potential candidates, Boulder Creek resident Christopher Bradford is not waiting around for word from McPherson and announced his candidacy for the seat on May 9. Bradford, a CZU fire survivor, has been a community advocate throughout the rebuild process. Bradford joins Encompass CEO Monica Martinez as the lone declared candidates to represent a large swath of the Santa Cruz Mountains on the board of supervisors.
Say It Again
"[In the past] we’ve had to make really painful cuts and the employees have also [gone through] furloughs, we’ve done layoffs. We’ve been through lots of challenges here and I see a lot of that coming down the pike.” — District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend, on the budget challenges facing the county in the years ahead.
The Week Ahead
Housing panel: May is Affordable Housing Month (yes, it is a real thing), so Housing Santa Cruz County and Lookout will be hosting a panel discussion with the mayors from the county’s four cities and the vice-chair of the board of supervisors to discuss the challenges ahead in building much-needed affordable housing. Each elected leader will get a few minutes to talk about their jurisdiction’s housing landscape before I ask them questions. Then we will open it up to questions from the audience. The event will be held via Zoom on Thursday, May 18, at 7 p.m. Register for free here.
Weekly News Diet
Local: In the haze of this most recent 4/20, a group of students from UC Santa Cruz got together and threw a birthday party for Hitler, a disappointing though not entirely surprising revelation in the current political climate. UCSC has a frustratingly opaque approach to public information, which is why it requires tireless reporters like my colleagues Hillary Ojeda and Max Chun to cover a story like this.
State: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, is back in Washington after a three-month absence battling shingles. The Feinstein story is well-known, but this Los Angeles Times piece poses an intriguing idea: Do the spoils of the Senate make it especially difficult for aging and increasingly dependent lawmakers to call it quits? I’m not sure Americans would agree with the image of the Capitol as a nursing home, but reporters Benjamin Oreskes and Noah Bierman wonder aloud whether it’s liable to happen in some cases.
National: A proper obituary for MTV News, which was shut down by parent company Paramount Media Networks last week. (Remy Tumin for the New York Times)
One Great Read
In the content-saturated landscape of the Digital Era, few profile articles register on the national Richter scale. Immediately, and more recently, I think of the unmasking of Yashar Ali by Los Angeles Magazine’s Peter Kiefer in June 2021 and Michael Shulman’s critical (and, dare I say, envy-driven?) profile of “Succession” star Jeremy Strong for the New Yorker in December 2021. (Please send others if you think of them!) To reach the Richter scale does not necessarily mean unanimous praise, but more often polarizing and raucous debate. In this spirit, Amy Chozick’s profile of notorious Theranos founder, convicted liar and amateur voice actor Elizabeth Holmes makes the mark.
Chozick meets Holmes, her husband and two children as they are counting down the days until she leaves for an 11-year prison sentence. The article was panned as puff, which is especially heinous content for a convicted criminal whose lies put innocent people’s lives at risk. Although Chozick might come off as overly sympathetic to Holmes, she openly wrestles with this urge, and doesn’t hold back on her criticism. Perhaps this article came out a few years too soon, as Holmes was convicted in only January 2022 and the wounds feel fresh. If you choose to read it, I would love to know your thoughts.