Don’t let Santa Cruz City Council mute your voice on development decisions

The 555 Pacific Avenue project under development in Santa Cruz
Community group Save Santa Cruz worries too much development will change the character of the city. Pictured here, 555 Pacific Avenue while under development.
(Via Gary A. Patton)

Save Santa Cruz believes the city’s new “objective standards” are flawed and will radically change the fabric of the city; the city council is scheduled to vote on them at its meeting Tuesday. The group, led by the author, Gary A. Patton, who served as District 3 Supervisor from 1975 to 1995, believes the new standards will significantly cut back public hearing rights and will not adequately project the quality and character of life in Santa Cruz.

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Tuesday, the Santa Cruz City Council is set to review an “objective standards” proposal that we believe — if passed — will do great harm.

The proposal is an almost 1,300-page mashup of multiple, detailed changes to the city’s planning code, which even those who — like me — have participated in the process can’t really understand. It’s too long and convoluted for anyone to grasp, let alone vote on.

We do not think the plan — as proposed — will preserve and protect residential neighborhood areas and existing city businesses or keep that preservation as the city’s highest-level policy priority.

In fact, in many cases, the opposite seems to be the case.

The worst feature of what is being proposed — buried in one of several ordinances, 300 pages into the document — is language that would take away hearing rights that the public now has. Members of the public should speak out now and insist the council preserve the public’s right to fully participate in the planning decisions that can have such major impacts on residential neighborhoods and on local small business.

Lookout readers might have noticed that in June, the city council initiated changes in the general plan to potentially allow 17-story residential towers to be built south of Laurel Street. (Councilmembers Justin Cummings and Sandy Brown voted against it.) If the plan is ultimately approved, (an environmental impact report is still needed), it would represent a fundamental change in the character and quality of our local community.

Here’s my point: Planning decisions can have big impacts on the community. Our planning procedures should ensure the public has the maximum opportunity to speak out when developments are proposed, and to let our elected officials know what we want for our city.

Unfortunately, the objective standards would significantly cut back public hearing opportunities. Major planning projects would be granted approval at a staff level, and if members of the public wanted to have a chance to oppose approval, they would have to appeal, and that would cost them something like $600 under today’s fee schedule.

The objective standards are, essentially, a rewrite of the city’s “Corridors Plan,” which failed in 2019.

Save Santa Cruz, a community-based group with over 1,700 supporters, of which I am the co-chair, campaigned actively against the “Corridors Plan” from 2017-19. We believed it would have permitted inappropriate, high-density, mixed-use development along all of the city’s main transportation corridors.

We also believe it would have allowed developments to proceed without adequate provisions to protect community concerns about water, traffic, parking, and business and neighborhood impacts.

Gary A. Patton is the co-chair of Save Santa Cruz and was District 3 County Supervisor for 20 years.
Gary A. Patton is the co-chair of Save Santa Cruz and was District 3 County Supervisor for 20 years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The plan failed for one clear reason: Santa Cruz residents want to preserve and protect the character and quality of our local neighborhoods, and because local residents also want to protect our unique local businesses.

Providing affordable housing opportunities and supporting appropriate new development opportunities don’t have to undermine what makes our community such a great place to live and raise a family.

As written, the objective standards are badly flawed.

We are asking the council to take no action Tuesday, and instead do two things.

The first is to direct the planning department to rewrite the proposal so it maintains full public hearing opportunities on proposed development projects.

The second is to ask the planning department to prepare a presentation explaining the impact of each proposed change in the municipal code. That way, neighborhood and community groups as well as business and the council itself can understand the impact these changes might have on our city.

State law already undermines local discretion in planning matters. The objective standards would make things even worse, since many planning decisions that now require a public hearing will be handled by the staff, without any public debate or discussion.

Concerned residents and voters should let the city council know that they oppose efforts to strip city residents of their right to comment and influence the development decisions that will have such a profound impact on their lives, and on their neighborhoods — and, for many small businesses, on their livelihoods.

If you are concerned, you can let the council know your thoughts by sending your email objection to:

Gary A. Patton is the co-chair of Save Santa Cruz, which is strongly opposing the city’s objective standards. Patton, an environmental attorney, served for 20 years as Santa Cruz County District 3 Supervisor. He was also the author of Measure J, establishing a comprehensive growth management system for Santa Cruz County, enacted as a referendum measure by voters in June 1978.

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