Parking and public safety issues threaten to push back the opening of Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument. Can the latest bureaucratic hurdles be cleared in order to begin prepping trails and access points this fall in anticipation of a summer 2022 opening?
Up the north coast of Santa Cruz, nestled along Highway 1 near Davenport and Bonny Doon, 5,800 acres of pristine coastal prairies, jagged canyons and spectacular views await visits from the public.
Emphasis on the wait.
It’s been four years since Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument — a former dairy farm and historical landmark — was designated a national monument by the Obama administration.
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While the project has been inching closer to clearing bureaucratic hurdles, and there is still hope the public could have access as early as next summer, there are still stiff challenges to that timeline.
Before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can break ground, its leaders must settle various appeals and reach agreements with a spectrum of local stakeholders about the south entrance to the monument.
Here’s a refresher on the scope of the project and an overview of the stumbling blocks.
About the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument
The land was once inhabited by the Cotoni, part of the larger indigenous Ohlone group, and contains several archaeological sites. It was later controlled by the Coast Dairies & Land Company, supporting Swiss dairy operations for decades. When in 1998 pressure rose to develop the area into a 139-home subdivision, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) moved in to purchase the land, with the help of generous donors.
According to Christy Fischer, Bay Area and Central Coast conservation director at the TPL, the organization bought the land with three values in mind: to allow responsible public recreation, protect the land as an agricultural resource and recognize it as a natural, scenic and biodiverse resource.
The land boasts six watersheds and diverse vegetation, including redwood forests, oak woodlands and coastal grasslands. It’s also home to a diverse ecosystem of rare or special-status species like steelhead, red-legged frogs and mountain lions.
In 2006, the TPL transferred 407 acres on the coast side of Highway 1 to California State Parks, and in 2014, it transferred 5,800 inland acres to the BLM, while retaining several inland parcels for agriculture.
Since President Barack Obama designated the land as a national monument in his final months of office in 2017, the BLM has worked with locals and stakeholders to develop a plan to allow public access, while also protecting the diverse wildlife and habitats, and considering the interests of nearby residents.
What is the current opening plan?
(The monument) definitely offers the best views in the county in terms of public accessible lands.
In June, after two years of public deliberation, the BLM released its resource management plan for opening the monument as early as summer 2022. It includes 27 miles of hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails, along with pedestrian/bicycle connections to San Vicente Redwoods and the North Coast Rail Trail. It also includes plans for prescribed burns and livestock grazing.
Fundraising is still in progress for trail-building. The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship — which is taking the lead on trail planning, funding and implementation — has raised over $1 million so far, with a goal of $3 million.
“(The monument) definitely offers the best views in the county in terms of public accessible lands,” said the organization’s executive director, Matt De Young. He hopes to begin trail building as early as this fall, with over 17 miles of access.
But the plan is still in flux. The most complicated piece of the puzzle remains getting people to the monument and finding places for parking. The BLM has long advocated for an entrance on each side of the land in order to distribute use, but this is easier said than done, according to Ben Blom, the field manager of the BLM Central Coast Field Office.
Everybody wishes there was a silver bullet, the perfect place to put a parking area. I’ve been working on this now for four years, and there is no silver bullet.
“Everybody wishes there was a silver bullet, the perfect place to put a parking area,” he said. “I’ve been working on this now for four years, and there is no silver bullet.”
The BLM ultimately settled on two primary entrances to the monument: a northern entrance near Davenport and a southern one near Bonny Doon. This southern parking lot — referred to as the “Marina Gate” access point — would be built on a marine terrace and require public use and expansion of a road going through agricultural land, which is still owned by the TPL.
The plan’s primary sticking points
At the southern Marina Gate lies the reopening plan’s snag: According to the TPL, this entry point is no longer a viable option due to concerns related to agricultural and natural resources. The land has been fallow for several years, but the TPL plans to lease it out for hay production in 2022.
On June 29, the TPL — along with Santa Cruz Puma Project, Friends of the North Coast, Rural Bonny Doon Association, Big Creek Lumber, Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and Sempervirens Fund — sent the BLM a letter detailing plans for an alternate entry point below the marine terrace, off of Highway 1.
The TPL would donate agricultural land to the BLM to build this “Yellow Bank South Gate,” which it says would reduce impact to agricultural uses and avoid impact on sensitive scenic and natural resources.
According to Blom, the BLM is supportive of the Yellow Bank entry point, as long as the TPL and supporting organizations conduct a feasibility study and get proper permitting, along with other bureaucratic tasks that can often take years. Supporters of the Yellow Bank plan argue that an expedited permitting process is feasible. Still, Blom fears that these steps could delay opening the monument.
The BLM is under pressure from the public to open the monument as quickly as possible. A group of state elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo and state Sen. John Laird, even sent the BLM a letter on Aug. 5 urging it to quickly implement its plan to open the area to the public.
There’s such urgency to open the monument, the east side of the highway, to public access, and we share the desire to get that done soon. ... (But) it’s worth taking a little more time if that’s what it takes to get it right.
But Fischer, with the TPL, said that even though moving the entry point could delay the planned summer 2022 opening, it will be worth it in the long run.
“There’s such urgency to open the monument, the east side of the highway, to public access, and we share the desire to get that done soon,” Fischer said. “We also recognize that the infrastructure that’s the next step will shape, not just the land, but also the public’s use of the land, their experience with the land, for generations to come. It’s worth taking a little more time if that’s what it takes to get it right.”
Other challenges to opening the monument come on the appeals front. Once the BLM’s plan was finalized in June, it triggered a 30-day appeals window.
The U.S. Department of Interior received two appeals: one general appeal from the San Andreas Land Conservancy, and another parking-specific appeal from Friends of the North Coast, Davenport/North Coast Association and Rural Bonny Doon Association. BLM cannot move forward with implementing the development plan unless these appeals are resolved or the parties reach an injunction.
So what happens next?
Blom expects to know more by mid-September about the appeals process. It’s possible trail-builders could still break ground in the monument as early as this fall, even if appeals aren’t completely resolved.
As for the southern entry point, the BLM, TPL and other stakeholders continue to work toward creating a management plan that allows public access while preserving vital resources. According to Blom, the BLM could start by opening the north entrance to the monument while coordination of the south entrance is underway.
“Ultimately, from my perspective, I just want to provide access to the public in the national monument,” Blom said. “I also don’t want to contribute to the haphazard parking and public safety issues along the north coast.”
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