A citizen-initiated petition that asks Santa Cruz voters if they want a say in whether new developments can exceed existing height limits has qualified for the March 2024 ballot, City Clerk Bonnie Bush told Lookout on Monday.

The local activist organization, Housing for People — Not Unaffordable Towers, submitted the petition to the city clerk in early October with about 6,800 signees. After counting the names, the clerk’s office sent the hundreds of pages of signatures to County Clerk Tricia Webber to verify how many names belonged to valid, city of Santa Cruz voters. On Friday, Webber’s team verified 5,076 valid names, well over the 3,690 required for the ballot.

Susan Monheit, who is helping to lead Housing for People’s push for direct democracy, said she was “very happy” but unsurprised, as she was confident in the group’s signature verification system throughout the gathering process.

“I’m happy we’re moving the democratic needle back to citizens having a voice,” Monheit told Lookout Monday. “That’s what the initiative asks people: Do I want a voice or do I want to leave it up to developers and city council members?”

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley called it “unsurprising” that the initiative qualified for the ballot. He said he “understands why people signed the petition” but said cities and counties operate under a new reality in which they have less ability to deny housing developments, especially if they bring affordable housing.

“There is a wistful desire that we return to a time when cities and counties can say no to growth and development. That’s not the world we live in anymore,” Keeley said. “

Susan Monheit, Frank Barron, and Keresha Durham.
Retired environmental scientist Susan Monheit, retired city and county planner Frank Barron, and climate activist Keresha Durham discuss their petition in downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

If passed, the initiative’s impacts will be twofold. Any development that proposes to build taller than the city’s existing height limits will first be subject to a citywide election; and new multifamily developments with 30 or more units will be required to reserve 25% of the units for low-income residents.

Although it carries citywide implications, the petition was triggered by the city’s plans for a downtown expansion in the neighborhood south of Laurel Street. As part of the city’s vision to expand downtown’s dense development coastward, the city and private stakeholders are eyeing a complete overhaul of the neighborhood into an entertainment district, with 1,600 new housing units in mixed-use residential buildings that could reach as tall as 12 stories, all anchored around a new, permanent Santa Cruz Warriors basketball/multi-purpose arena.

Santa Cruz Warriors President Chris Murphy, and Kris Reyes, spokesperson for the Seaside Company, which owns real estate in the downtown expansion area, didn’t immediately return Lookout’s requests for comment. It is yet unclear how, and whether, a successful initiative will impact the plans for the South of Laurel neighborhood. In October, Santa Cruz City Council directed staff to analyze that impact and bring back a report at the end of January. Ahead of that vote, Murphy sent the city an email supporting such an in-depth analysis.

Santa Cruz City Council has two options: put the initiative question before voters on the March 2024 ballot, or city council members can vote the initiative into law themselves. Bush told Lookout via email that the city council will decide which route to take on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

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...