22 Storylines for 2022: Lookout previews the action-packed year ahead for Santa Cruz County
Bye, bye, 2021. Hardly knew ya. Or knew ya too well perhaps. It is now time to cobble together that 2022 planner we always say we’ll get ahead on and be totally prepared for everything. Well, we know how that goes. At least we here at Lookout are doing our part to get everyone ahead of the game.
It is time to look forward.
We know enough, after the last couple of years, to know how unpredictable the year ahead may be. That said, we do know that many of the stories that consumed our attention in 2021 will demand it again in 2022.
At Lookout, we’ve highlighted 22 of them for you right here...
The myriad impacts of the pandemic
Back in the dawning days of the COVID era — circa March 2020 — it seemed almost impossible to think we’d still be dealing with this nightmare as the world tumbles into 2022. But here we are. With the implications of the highly transmissible Omicron variant still unknown, here’s some of the things we’ll be monitoring in the new year:
- Business & tourism: Though locals might grumble occasionally about the flood of people coming over the hill, Santa Cruz County’s economy is deeply tied to the tourist trade and entertainment industry. With COVID continuing its rampage, we’ll be looking to see how our vital businesses that have been hurt by a drop in tourist dollars adapt.
- Schools: Officials announced in late December that the state would be providing rapid coronavirus tests for students in California’s K-12 public schools and expand hours at busy screening sites, a commitment Lookout continues to monitor how easy it is to get those tests locally. In addition, we’ll be watching the ever-changing challenges in higher ed locally. We’ll follow UC Santa Cruz’s decision to have the first two weeks of the winter quarter be remote and Cabrillo College’s decision to continue hybrid learning.
- Mandates: The masks-on, masks-off mandates over the past 12 months have given everyone in the county whiplash. Even in science-friendly Santa Cruz, residents and workers might be turning a jaundiced eye to the flip-flop in warnings. We’ll continue to report on how the public deals with the health orders.
- Vaccines, testing and health care workers: For the past month, Lookout has resumed providing weekly updates on vaccine rates, hospitalizations, infections and a whole host of other data points. We’ll continue to do so in the new year as well as pressing our local officials and providers on a key question yet to be answered. That is, if the Omicron variant’s transmissibility makes the need for a vaccine and/or booster that much more urgent, why are the standard wait times — currently about two weeks — unchanged? So far, our reporting shows that the wait doesn’t appear to be a supply problem.
- Restaurants & the supply chain: The industry has already been hit hard by staffing and safety issues, but the difficulty in even getting the raw materials needed has been a challenge. Will more places turn to increased locally sourced food and drink, like Home in Soquel? Time will tell.
Greenway vs. Rail and Trail: What will the supes do about ballot measure?
In mid-December, supporters of the Greenway Plan submitted more than 16,000 signatures as part of a drive to get an initiative on the ballot. If passed, it directs the county to prioritize the interim use of the corridor’s existing trestles and railbed for the Greenway. That Greenway is essentially a two-lane-wide path that would allow for commuting, active transportation and recreation from Santa Cruz to Watsonville on the railroad tracks between the cities. The initiative would also “rail bank” those tracks, allowing the possibility of train use in the future.
In what has now been a years-long bitter dispute, Friends of the Rail and Trail opposes the plan. FORT has advocated a commuter line and trail combination, which the group says would both ease Highway 1 congestion and improve commuting for South County-based workers. It also claims “rail banking” is a feint, and that no lines used in this way have ever been returned to rail use.
The county clerk’s office has until Jan. 31 to verify the signatures, after which point the board of supervisors has a decision to make. It can either pass an ordinance adopting the initiative, approve it for the ballot or choose to do further studies on the initiative before allowing a public vote. Lookout will be closely covering this contentious issue.
Will county workers end up on strike?
For the better part of the past year, Santa Cruz County government workers in health care, education and other sectors have been vocal about what they see as unsatisfactory working conditions, threatening to strike if their next contract does not meet their terms. The workers, who are members of Service Employees International Union Local 521, say county leaders have been unresponsive to what workers faced during the pandemic. In early December, 93.5% of voting union members voted in favor of authorizing a strike.
County supervisors acknowledge concerns, but cite significant budget constraints, and say workers are paid in line with similar-sized areas. Whether a strike happens will likely be one of the first big stories in the new year.
Changing of the leadership guard … everywhere
A new year with lingering questions – chiefly, navigating the continuing pandemic – dawns with new faces in leading roles across Santa Cruz County. That changing of the guard includes the mayors in the county’s largest cities, as new leaders take charge, including Sonja Brunner in Santa Cruz, Ari Parker in Watsonville, Donna Lind in Scotts Valley and Sam Storey in Capitola.
In Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley, new city managers move into place with Matt Huffaker and Mali LaGoe, respectively, while Watsonville still looks to fill that role after Huffaker departed to Santa Cruz. Huffaker faces the added challenges of finding a new fire chief and a new police chief.
Meanwhile, Bernie Escalante continues as Santa Cruz’s interim police chief after Andy Mills left for Palm Springs. Watsonville has a new top cop in newly appointed Jorge Zamora. Meanwhile, Cal Fire’s CZU unit, covering Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, has a new chief as Nate Armstrong has moved up the ladder. Whether it’s COVID curveballs or ever-present fire danger, how quickly the new leaders get up to speed bears close watching in 2022 – as does how they mesh with each other.
Who steps up in the race to replace Coonerty?
In April, more than 18 months ahead of the general election, Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty announced he would not be seeking a third term. The move set off behind-the-scenes jockeying and much speculation about who would actually run for the seat — which represents almost all of the city of Santa Cruz as well as the county’s north coast — on the board of supervisors. The first move came from Santa Cruz Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson in September, followed by her colleague Justin Cummings the next month.
Since then, things have been relatively quiet. Lookout will watch how these two interact in their current political roles as they vie for the supervisor gig, and whether any policy or personality clashes on the campaign trail spill over into work at City Hall. As of now, three people — including Bonny Doon resident Thomas Dean Ramos — have filed forms with the County Clerk’s office stating they intend to run. But nobody can file officially until Feb. 14, meaning there’s plenty of time left for more people to get into the race before the June primary. It could very well be a wild ride.
How much will elected representation change in the county?
The new districts that Santa Cruz County and California voters will vote within for the 2022 election have been drawn. Those include the seats of state legislators, U.S. Congress representatives and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, among others; they will remain in place for 10 years. Several districts are still redrawing maps, including school districts and cities.
Some of the new maps, drawn by an independent, 14-member state commission, have created concerns among communities across the state, including in Santa Cruz County. While the county remains in the same State Senate district, the State Assembly district map for the county has changed dramatically – causing the most outcry, especially about the “disenfranchis[ing] of our rural Latino and working families of the Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz communities,” as protested by the city of Watsonville in a recent letter.
The city of Santa Cruz is in the midst of its own drawing of districts for the first time as it transitions from at-large elections for city councilmembers to district-based elections. City staff estimate that new maps will be proposed in March 2022.
Cabrillo administrator charges
Paul De La Cerda, who joined Cabrillo College as its vice president of instruction in July, now faces charges of misappropriation of government funds and embezzlement from his time serving as a dean at his previous employer, East Los Angeles College. In mid-December, prosecutors in Los Angeles County formally accused De La Cerda.
Though the Cabrillo Board of Trustees quickly placed him on administrative leave until Jan. 31, Cabrillo’s leaders will face questions about his summer hiring and how the college will proceed with 2022 plans to increase enrollment, for which De La Cerda was taking a key role. Los Angeles prosecutors have been tight-lipped regarding details, though more could be revealed after he is arraigned in Los Angeles on Jan. 7.
School safety in the wake of Aptos tragedy
Santa Cruz County experienced a tumultuous return to school this fall after a year of remote instruction and social isolation due to COVID-19. In the worst scenarios, some schools, like Aptos High School, saw tragic violence. A student there died Aug. 31 after a stabbing attack, with two schoolmates charged in the death. The incident launched the question of school safety, social emotional health and school resource officers back to the forefront. The Pajaro Valley Unified School District had voted to remove SROs from its high schools in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and protests against systemic racism in the summer of 2020.
After the stabbing, the district board voted to reinstate SROs, as part of a pilot program pairing with mental health clinicians on the Aptos High and Watsonville High campuses. District trustees will review how effective the program is in keeping students safe and decide in May whether to keep and expand the program or suspend it. Meanwhile, the stabbing victim’s family has filed a formal complaint against PVUSD, claiming, in part, the removal of the SRO played a major factor in the teen’s death.
BLM MURAL TRIAL
How will the Black Lives Matter mural trial play out?
Ever since Brandon Bochat and Hagan Warner were arrested for allegedly doing burnouts across the Black Lives Matter mural in front of Santa Cruz City Hall in July, community discussion has been consumed with an appropriate path to justice. Initially, local activists advocated for a restorative justice approach, meaning the two men would help repair the mural and potentially discuss further reparations with the wider community.
However, after the defense and prosecution teams could not reach an agreement on such a result, the prosecution announced plans to pursue felony charges with a hate crime enhancement, and the notion of restorative justice was effectively buried. The defendants are due back in court on Jan. 5. Activists, government officials and the community at large will be watching closely.
CONSTRUCTION & DEVELOPMENT
How will Murray Street bridge construction affect traffic flow?
An approximately two-and-a-half-year construction project on the Murray Street Bridge over the Santa Cruz Harbor could begin as early as April and run all the way to December 2024. The project, which entails widening the shoulders on both sides and adding 7-foot sidewalks, is expected to cause major traffic congestion on one of the main routes that connects the Eastside to Seabright and beyond.
Additionally, the harbor itself could face disruptions like dock modifications, boat rack relocations, and even a possible closure of parts of the boatyard. While there has been no confirmed start date for construction, the full scope of the consequences will not be known until the project officially begins.
Will CZU recovery find much-needed momentum?
Over a year after the CZU Lightning Complex fires first struck the Santa Cruz Mountains, many community members are still reeling from the aftermath, making their views known about the level of assistance they’ve received. In December 2020, the county created the Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience — now led by director Dave Reid — to assist in the rebuilding efforts, as families fight back against the hotly contested CZU Rebuild Directive, debris removal failures, and rapidly approaching deadlines from insurance companies.
Vocal advocate and San Lorenzo Valley resident Antonia Bradford said while she’s grateful for Reid’s work, the county’s delays have left fire families with no choice but to build in winter, which could lead to further uproar: “Barely anyone’s been able to do anything, and that’s abhorrent.” Residents say it’s more challenging to build in the winter months because of wetter conditions and because materials are more expensive. County officials understand the concern, and say they are trying to streamline building requirements as much as possible, but safety concerns require the various evaluations to be completed first.
Lower Pacific Avenue continues its transformation
Walks or drives near the intersections where Laurel meets Front and Pacific will only get louder in 2022 as the downtown overhaul continues in furious fashion. The century-old Palomar Hotel might soon be sharing the skyline with seven new six- and seven-story buildings currently planned for the downtown area. Commercial buildings along Front Street, including one that houses local favorite India Joze, will be razed as construction on multiple new projects begins.
The fate of the contentious Cruz Hotel development, which would be downtown’s first in nearly a century, is expected to be put into the hands of the Santa Cruz City Council early in the year. There remains talk of creating further connectivity between the beach and downtown, and hopes from the Santa Cruz Warriors of making Kaiser Permanente Arena into a permanent “modern event venue.” And we can’t forget the ongoing discourse over building a new mixed-use library structure that includes housing and parking at Cedar and Cathcart looks to be inching closer to reality. While businesses continue their attempt to rebound now, the future of downtown will proceed noisily in 2022.
Water agencies continue to get creative
Water policy, politics and environmental impact assume a greater role in the year ahead as the state’s drought issues persist. In 2022, we’ll see the implementation — and continuation — of several important water supply projects throughout the county. The largest is the continuing Pure Water Soquel, Soquel Creek Water District’s groundwater replenishment and seawater intrusion prevention project. It’s expected to make significant headway in 2022 after breaking new ground in December. If you’ve been stuck in traffic on Laurel or Bay streets recently, this project is the reason why.
Pure Water Soquel will treat wastewater from the treatment facility at Neary Lagoon and purify it with a state-of-the-art, three-step purification process. The purified water will be injected into the ground via wells to the “critically overdrafted” Mid-County Groundwater Basin in an effort to provide a reliable, sustainable and drought-proof water supply. Eight miles of new pipelines under surface streets will transport water between the treatment facilities — so expect more traffic jams.
The city of Santa Cruz, which also provides water for customers in Live Oak and at UC Santa Cruz, will begin capturing excess water from the San Lorenzo River and north coast streams caused by significant rain. It will treat this water and inject it into aquifers in the Live Oak area. The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency will move forward on a number of projects to increase its water portfolio, most notably in the College Lake area and around the Watsonville Slough, and will expand on a recycled water program that benefits the local ag industry.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING & HOMELESSNESS
An increased urgency to house the unhoused?
The sight of blocks-long tent cities in the middle of the city of Santa Cruz have brought new urgency to the issue of homelessnes, pushing it to the top of the community agenda for many. In the past year, the Santa Cruz City Council has addressed the issue, in part, passing both the Temporary Outdoor Living Ordinance/Camping Services and the Standards Ordinance and Oversized Vehicle Ordinance.
City of Santa Cruz Homelessness Response Manager Larry Imwalle said the city will coordinate its efforts with the county to best utilize $14 million recently awarded in the state budget, emphasizing that ”the need to address this issue far exceeds even that $14 millon.”
On the county level, spokesman Jason Hoppin notes that the county’s primary focus remains “finding housing for highly vulnerable unhoused residents,” with nearly $8 million dedicated to the Rehousing Wave program over the next two years. Robert Ratner, the county’s director of Housing for Health, told Lookout that the top priority for his department will be continuing affordability needs. However, Ratner said he is still working on the specifics.
How much affordable housing will be available in Santa Cruz in 2022?
The approval of the 831 Water Street project, the city’s first SB 35 project, showed the fissures in Santa Cruz over affordable housing. Supported by business leaders and Santa Cruz YIMBY leads Elizabeth Conlan and Rafa Sonnenfeld, the project drew much ire from neighbors for its scale and location. That project, officially approved by the Santa Cruz City Council in a 4-3 vote on Dec. 14, could pave the way for other such developments.
The county at large will soon see other affordable projects break ground, including Santa Cruz’s mixed-use library project, with 125 units, and Watsonville’s Pippin Phase II with 80 units, 39 of which are to be dedicated to farmworkers. As these units come online, Lookout will closely look at both the formal current housing allocation goals, and the substantial overall affordability woes.
The impact on UC Santa Cruz students
Those affordability questions could heighten as more UC Santa Cruz students fully return, the timing dependent on the in-progress COVID wave that has forced the campus to adopt online-only instruction for the first two weeks of the upcoming January winter quarter. In the fall, about two-thirds of students attended in-person during the fall quarter. Many students already felt the burden of finding housing both on and off campus.
While UCSC houses the highest percentage of its students on campus among all UC campuses, the community’s small size and ranking as one of the priciest housing markets in the country make the housing math difficult to navigate. UCSC, along with other UC campuses, has housed students in hotel rooms in the fall, a strategy that is likely to carry over into 2022.
What will be the fate of Watsonville Community Hospital?
While Dominican Hospital serves as the county’s primary hospital facility, Watsonville Community Hospital serves as a second, vital part of the system. Concerns over the facility’s financial struggles reached a breaking point Thanksgiving week when employees were told the hospital would suspend operations in 2022 if it didn’t find a buyer.
Shortly after, the hospital reached a preliminary agreement with local nonprofit Pajaro Valley Healthcare District Project. Much is in progress as community leaders form a health care district and the hospital has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, while maintaining operations. At the same time, nurses have raised ongoing staffing and patient care concerns. Added up, the next life of the hospital is a key question as the county considers its public health system.
Will Kaiser break ground in Live Oak?
Kaiser Permanente plans to build a 160,000-square-foot facility in Live Oak, adjacent to Highway 1, off the frontage road in the middle of the county. The project at5940 Soquel Ave is intended, according to Kaiser, to fill gaps in Santa Cruz’s medical offerings with a main Kaiser hub right in the middle of the county.
Kaiser terms it a “specialty facility” that would include outpatient services, a 24-hour urgent care clinic and medical offices. The plan has attracted significant community opposition, mainly over traffic concerns and a lack of connection to public transit, with neighbors arguing that the Kaiser facility will create more congestion in an already high-traffic area.
Opponents have threatened a lawsuit over those concerns. Kaiser, in turn, says the plan would include room for 150 bikes and a parking structure for 700 vehicles. The planning commission will conduct a hearing in January, and then the matter will go to the board of supervisors, perhaps by February. If it passes, ground could be broken as early as late 2022 with an opening slated for 2024.
Will Watsonville growth expand into ag land?
Watsonville voters could be asked to decide on a ballot measure that, if approved, would limit the expansion of the city’s urban area for decades. A group of farmers, leaders and environmental advocates is seeking the extension of a general plan amendment Watsonville voters approved in 2002 which limited urban growth into the agricultural and natural lands surrounding the city. The Watsonville City Clerk’s office is reviewing more than 3,000 signatures the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection says it got from voters who favor putting the measure on the November 2022 ballot and extending the restrictions through 2040.
In a letter to the city, Sam Earnshaw, a committee member and Watsonville resident, argued the proposal for boundaries is not permanent, but allows “the city to build in vacant and underutilized sites, before spreading out onto new lands, that will require costly installation of city services, as well as loss of farms, jobs and food production.” The city manager’s office is preparing a report to determine how the extension of the restrictions would affect the general plan, the availability of housing, the community’s ability to attract business and the use of vacant land, among other factors.
Thanks to state grant, downtown Watsonville will get a refresh
More big changes are coming to Watsonville in 2022 after the city won a $3.5 million state grant in December to revitalize the square in the heart of downtown. City Plaza is on the National Register of Historic Places, and hosts events including the annual Strawberry Festival and weekly farmers market. The signature gazebo and fountain will get a refresh, and additions will include a permanent stage with seating areas, game tables, group picnic areas, a play station and public art.
Just up Main Street, meanwhile, entrepreneur Tabitha Stroup is transforming a vacant building into a food hub that already includes a cookware store and with a meeting place/classroom for hire and a bar in the works. And upgrades are also underway at Ramsay Park, with some $22 million in local and state funds set aside to transform another community hub.
LABOR & AGRICULTURE
Will labor issues continue to plague the restaurant industry?
The pandemic dealt a major blow to the restaurant industry, and it’s still reeling from multiple lingering challenges. One of the most concerning is an ongoing labor shortage. While government support was initially blamed for the slow return of restaurant staff, federal unemployment ended at the beginning of September, with little employment change. Restaurant workers initially furloughed at the start of the pandemic had moved on to other industries or started their own businesses.
But the pandemic has also shined a bright spotlight on longstanding issues of work hours, paid time off and family leave, among others. Restaurateurs, faced with the multiple pressures of an always-tough business and the vagaries of COVID, weigh their own actions as they try to create a more stable employment base and sustainable businesses.
Another tough year for the local agricultural industry
Next year could be another difficult one for Santa Cruz County’s agricultural industry Shortages of everything, particularly paper goods and labor, continue to challenge farmers at every turn, from planting to harvest and distribution, as prices skyrocket. Labor, already in short supply before the pandemic, has become even more difficult to secure as COVID regulations make immigration and moving around the state more difficult. Truckers are leaving the industry in droves and the wells smaller farmers use throughout the state may go dry.
The minimum wage increase to take effect in 2022 is a win for employees, but while a company might normally be able to absorb this new cost in a normal year, with the increasing costs in everything else, including land use, profit-making will be more challenging. Farmers might choose not to plant, or only grow to order, so independent grocery stores will be hit harder than grocery giants that can buy everything a farmer produces. Consumers will feel these woes at the grocery store, where prices are likely to continue to increase.