Parking battle leaves Santa Cruz County’s lone national monument gated from the public

Part of the 5,800-acre Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument north of Santa Cruz.
(Jim Pickering / Bureau of Land Management)

More than six years after President Barack Obama included the Cotoni-Coast Dairies area on Santa Cruz County’s northern coast in the California Coastal National Monument, a dispute over parking has pushed the likely opening date to late 2024.

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Eight miles north of the Santa Cruz city boundary along the Highway 1 corridor sits one of Santa Cruz County’s prized natural jewels. Spread across 5,800 acres, Cotoni-Coast Dairies is a rolling landscape of grassy shelves and Pacific vistas that President Barack Obama designated as part of the California Coastal National Monument during his final month in office in 2017.

Yet in the more than six years after its elevation, the public has remained, largely, kept out. Planned opening dates in 2021 and 2022 were quashed by long-simmering disagreements over the property and its management among neighborhood groups, the federal government, agricultural interests and a national land trust. Now the most ambitious estimates do not have Cotoni-Coast Dairies opening to the broader public until late 2024.

When the Rural Bonny Doon Association met last Wednesday, Jonathan Wittwer, president of neighborhood group Friends of the North Coast, emphasized that although many objected to the land’s inclusion in the California Coastal National Monument, the neighborhood associations are not trying to block Cotoni-Coast Dairies’ opening.

“We’re not saying ‘not in our backyard,’ but let’s do it the right way in our backyard,” Wittwer told the sparse group of nine, mostly older, residents gathered inside the Bonny Doon Union Elementary School gym, with more tuned in via Zoom. He said the North Coast Coalition, consisting of Rural Bonny Doon Association, Friends of the North Coast and Davenport North Coast Association, want proper entrances at both the southern and north ends of the monument to accommodate an expected exponential increase in traffic, as well as resource management and protection on the property.

Yes, the public’s ability to access this publicly owned national monument hinges on a parking dispute. I’ll paint that in broad strokes, but first quick context on who owns what. The Indigenous Cotoni Tribe called the area home before Spanish missions flushed the tribe out and claimed ownership of the land. In the 1860s, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Swiss growers bought the land from the Spanish and turned it into a dairy farm. More than a century later, in 1998, San Francisco-based conservation nonprofit Trust for Public Lands (TPL) bought the property to rescue it from development pressure. In 2014, TPL gifted much of the land to the Bureau of Land Management, except for three agricultural plots TPL oversees today.

Then, Obama included the sprawling property in the California Coastal National Monument. The monument stretches along the full coast of the state and roughly 12 miles out to sea, but Cotoni-Coast Dairies became one of six onshore areas wrapped into the federal protection. Obama’s decision meant the lands would eventually open up to the public visitors, which initially drew local opposition as people worried about an influx of traffic. As Wittwer told the slim crowd Wednesday night, “National monuments get advertised. Not national monuments don’t.”

The first major piece of BLM’s mission to open the monument came in 2020 with the release of resource management plan draft. Understanding that an expected spike in tourism would accompany the opening of the monument, that plan analyzed how best to manage the influx of cars and bodies to the property. The plan determined that two distant entrances and parking lots, one at the north end and one to the south, could help dilute traffic bottlenecks. However, the plan for the southern entrance parking lot leaned on an agreement from TPL that the parking lot entrance could use some of its agricultural land.

an overview map of Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument
The Warranella Gate parking lot to the north, and the Marina Gate Terrace parking lot to the south, are lots the Bureau of Land Management initially proposed before the Trust for Public Land pulled out of the agreement on the southern parking lot. The map also shows two alternative north and south parking lots proposed by neighborhood groups.
(Via Friends of the North Coast)

Documents show BLM’s proposal for the entrance and parking lot, and its impact on the property, went well beyond what TPL originally expected. It would have harmed the ability to farm the plots, which, in turn, would have violated the terms of TPL’s agricultural stewardship. In June 2021, TPL told the federal government its agricultural land was no longer an option for a parking lot on the southern end.

Christy Fischer, TPL’s director of conservation for California’s northern coast, was unable to further comment on TPL’s decision to pull out.

In order to keep moving forward, the federal government decided to divert from the approved plan for the southern entrance and focus on opening with a single entrance, at the northern end of the monument. In a perfect representation of how slow this all moves, Wittwer and the local neighborhood groups filed an appeal with the federal government against the single-entrance plan in July 2021. The appeal contended that the monument’s opening was based on a plan to build and open a northern and southern entrance at the same time. If the federal government was going to move forward with a single, northern entrance, then the impact of a single entrance on the property’s natural resources needed to be studied. By Aug. 8, 2022, there was still no word on the appeal, so BLM began clearing trees and bulldozing the area for the northern parking lot. Less than two weeks into the work, on Aug. 31, the federal appeals board sided with the neighbors, halted construction and told BLM they would need to conduct of a full study on opening the monument with only a single entrance before moving forward.

Zachary Ormsby, BLM’s Central Coast field manager and man on the ground for the national monument project, expects that study, which will examine the impact of a single entrance and include a list of alternative options, to publish by year’s end.

However, despite the neighbors’ feelings, finally opening the monument to broad public access does not depend on a parking lot — only completion of a new resource management plan. The federal government will consider public comment and sentiment on the plan and alternatives, but BLM has the power to unilaterally decide the path forward, Ormsby says. Ormsby says a parking lot is not guaranteed or required before BLM opens the land to the broader public.

“My perspective is that we’ll come up with a plan and list of options that will allow this community to move forward with confidence and comfort without filing any more appeals,” Ormsby said. “The common element among all the groups is that we love this land. The only thing we’re trying to reconcile is that we all love it collectively.”

According to Wittwer, an April 26 roundtable — which included BLM, TPL, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta’s office, representatives from the California Coastal Commission and local neighborhood groups — devolved into a four-hour blame game over the monument’s stunted opening. Wittwer says he wants to attempt another roundtable to get everyone on even footing before BLM publishes its plan at year’s end.

“We want this to move faster,” Wittwer said, “It’s just important that we get this right.”

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to correct the timeline of the appeal from neighborhood groups to stop construction of the northern entrance parking lot.


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