Longtime civic leaders Mark Mesiti-Miller and Roaring Camp president Melani Clark have taken the lead in trying to defeat the controversial Measure D. Who are they, and what has led to their high-profile involvement? Just as the leaders of “Yes” say, they explain the fight has turned more vitriolic than expected.
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There’s no mistaking the passion that drives Mark Mesiti-Miller and Melani Clark, the two most prominent leaders of No Way Greenway, the group vehemently opposing Measure D, the Greenway initiative that asks voters to weigh in on the usage of the Santa Cruz Branch Line rail corridor.
Like the issue itself, how each became immersed in the future of the rail corridor at this rancorous of a level is complicated — and hard to believe even for them.
As voters fight to cut through the politics, and sometimes nasty back-and-forth, to understand Measure D’s complex issues, the No Way brass must fight for the causes they believe in along with their reputation (Mesiti-Miller) and family business (Clark). Both have become unexpected targets in this fight that has viciously divided a community.
While neither has the public bull’s-eye on their backs — nor the air of mystery surrounding them — that Greenway leader Bud Colligan has, the stories of what makes Mesiti-Miller and Clark tick have become just as relevant in giving voters a full understanding of what drives the most passionate visions for the rail corridor’s future.
Mesiti-Miller’s involvement in county housing and transportation issues dates back to the late 1990s, and he’s currently serving a second term on the Santa Cruz city planning commission. His role in civic projects, though, has never put him in the political crosshairs quite like Measure D has.
Clark, whose first name is pronounced May-lani (her mom, Georgiana, was Hawaiian), can point to her decades as a protector of her family business, the locally beloved Roaring Camp Railroad, since she began helping her mother keep it going after her father, Norman, passed unexpectedly at age 50 in 1985. But she, too, has never felt a more personal stake in an issue facing the community.
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The hotly debated topic of railbanking is what brought Clark and Roaring Camp into the Measure D imbroglio in February. At issue, and still not yet clear, is whether a forced abandonment of the Felton line that connects Roaring Camp to the Beach Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz line, being explored by the Regional Transportation Commission and perhaps expedited by a yes vote, would seriously damage the Clarks’ family business.
Mesiti-Miller, 68, says his fight is on principle over the future of a community he loves, while Clark, 55, maintains hers is based on protecting both that larger existential future of the county and a family tradition that long ago became a community tradition.
June 7 is a date circled in demonstrative red Sharpie circles on both of their calendars.
How did they get here?
‘A good example of how heated things have gotten’
Mesiti-Miller is “a very engaged person, very curious, he likes getting things done,” says his friend Matt Farrell, who met him a decade ago while working in the city of Santa Cruz’s planning department and now co-chairs the No Way campaign with him. “He’s very interested in making something happen as opposed to being a spectator. He’s also very into the nuts and bolts of things.”
He has also long been marching toward what he believes is a future incorporating carbon-free transportation options along the Santa Cruz Branch Line rail corridor with dense housing options — and an incentive to challenge our long-held car culture beliefs.
Mesiti-Miller — or M³ (spoken as “M cubed”), as he used as his signature on anything related to the civil engineering company he founded — is described by those who know him well through his civic endeavors as zealous about housing and transportation, concerned about creating a sustainable green future. He possesses an engineer’s brain and likes to dig in deep and do the dirty work.
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➤ Meet the No Way Greenway leaders, Mark Mesiti-Miller and Melani Clark (Mark Conley)
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Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane has worked alongside Mesiti-Miller on affordable housing projects for years and said he’s never seen anything but an even-handed approach and openness to compromise.
“He certainly battles for something he believes in, but he’s also someone who wants to work things out,” Lane said. “He’s a good example of how heated things have gotten on this issue because he’s not one to be out there in that way.”
Some who know Mesiti-Miller say the battle has changed his demeanor, made him more defensive, especially as questions about the civil engineering company he sold seven years ago have entered the campaign.
He sold Mesiti-Miller Engineering, Inc. in 2015 and has heard accusations that the company benefits from the rail/trail plan by doing business with the city and county on projects in the rail corridor.
Colligan told Lookout that he respects Mesiti-Miller’s community work, “particularly in the area of housing,” but he believes full transparency around the firm now named MME is fair public information. He cites engineering MME has done for the cantilevered bridge over the San Lorenzo River, among other “large retaining walls, ‘floating viaducts,’ and numerous bridges.”
“Whether Mark sold the firm some years ago is not the issue,” Colligan said. “This project has been going on for 10-plus years when he did own the firm. Certainly MME can continue to bid on city and county projects, and there is nothing wrong with that, but the connection should be fully disclosed.”
Mesiti-Miller said he transferred ownership more than seven years ago and has “no continued financial stake in the corporation.” He bristles at any presumption of wrongdoing and takes this level of political wrangling personally.
“It’s dishonest. It’s disingenuous. It’s a smear,” he said.
Mesiti-Miller and Colligan have played golf and dined together previously, and perhaps long after the dust settles they will again. But Mesiti-Miller says he has made it clear to Colligan that he thinks the conflict charge is a punch below the belt.
“It’s immoral,” he said.
Putting heart and soul into her father’s company
Clark got pulled into the rail/trail fray much more visibly in February when the RTC began studying the issue of railbanking, and a potential forced abandonment of the line that links Roaring Camp to the Boardwalk.
“A lot of people who are familiar with Roaring Camp and my father know that there’s an emotional connection to the Santa Cruz Branch Line,” she said. “A lot of people felt that all of the work that he did contributed to his health issues and his passing months later. It wasn’t expected.”
She was just 18 when her dad unexpectedly passed away from heart failure just as the family had purchased the Felton Branch Line and begun work on connecting Roaring Camp to the Santa Cruz Branch Line.
And the work needed was extensive after the line had endured major storms in 1981 and 1982, including the one that caused the infamous Love Creek flooding that destroyed 30 homes and killed 10 people in January of ‘82.
“The company basically took on this asset that was in horrible shape, and we put a lot of heart and soul into it to get it to where it is today,” she said.
That’s why the topic of railbanking — which would include a “forced abandonment” of the Felton line and end the federal protection Roaring Camp gets as part of the national rail network — makes Clark, her sisters and supporters of their unique local business very nervous.
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“To me it’s sort of like being a mother with two children, and you’re threatening to take one of them away,” she said of taking away use of a Santa Cruz Branch Line that includes popular daily stops at the Boardwalk in the summer and holiday trains in December. “I think people connect with the emotional side of this because we have a long history in the community. I think that’s why we have such a strong support base.”
“Like Mark, Melani isn’t a big self-promoter, but she quietly does a lot of things in the San Lorenzo Valley,” No Way co-chair Farrell said. “From using the train to help park rangers pull trash out of the river to helping with rescue efforts by first responders, Roaring Camp does a lot for that community.”
A no vote on D isn’t solely about perceptions of Roaring Camp’s future. Nor is it solely about keeping rail open as a future transportation option in Santa Cruz County.
Those, however, are the biggest issues that drew Clark and Mesiti-Miller to this contentious moment. Lookout talked with both to learn more about their personal connections to the cause, the wider community issues they care about and the rancor this campaign has wrought.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Lookout: You and Bud have played a little golf together I hear, Mark. Who wins those matches?
Mesiti-Miller: I think it’s probably a draw. He’s won a few, I’ve won a few. I think we’re all square on the cash payoff. I think we both enjoy competition. There’s something about competing that changes the game.
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Lookout: Affordable housing was your entry point into civic engagement, right?
Mesiti-Miller: Housing and transportation. I think housing is one that’s easy for people to relate to. We don’t have enough of it. There are people without shelter that live on the streets. That’s a common experience the world over, and shelter is a fundamental human need. So as an architectural engineer, designing buildings has been my career and there’s a natural symbiosis there. The transportation part is I’ve been a cyclist all my life.
It’s a great way to get around, and it’s gentle on the environment. That’s what originally got me engaged back in 1997, when it was just me and a handful of other visionary cyclists that thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to have a car-free path through our county?” and the rail line seemed like a logical place. That began my interest in the rail corridor.
Lookout: You were a major proponent of high-density housing here long before it became more popular. Or at least before the state mandated it. What did you see?
Mesiti-Miller: The idea of increasing density along our corridors is not my idea. The Sierra Club launched an anti-sprawl campaign in like 1990. They recognized that the way the United States was growing was going to just chew up green land. They said we need to quit sprawling, we need to quit expanding our cities endlessly into farmland and the natural environment. You need to grow up and create more walkable communities so people can get rid of carbon. These things are not new.
In Santa Cruz, that same sentiment led to the corridor plan. So the zoning code and general plan were updated to say we need to densify along the corridor and create transit corridors where people could live, and live without cars and shift to a greener, more sustainable, more affordable community. That was a big change.
Lookout: Is this place more averse to change than others, you think, because the county leans more rural than urban?
Mesiti-Miller: When you arrive in Santa Cruz or wherever, it doesn’t matter … wherever you end up, your picture of where you are doesn’t change. You think of the place that you move to as the place you moved to 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But the reality is, it’s changing around us all the time. I like to think about how people can plan communities and can use the force of change to shape the community into what you want it to be.
Because change is going to happen. It can change for the worse, it can change for the better, but it’s going to change. So I’ve always thought that the best thing to do is to harness that force of change to create the more sustainable, more equitable community you want.
Lookout: How much does this tie back into affordable housing for you?
Mesiti-Miller: It’s all connected. We need more affordable housing and we need a better way of getting around. And the best way of getting people around is public transit. And the reasons for that are endless. The most robust bicycle city in the United States is Davis. And at its peak, the [city’s greenway, the Davis Loop] was getting about 20% ridership, and that’s dropping.
The reason is because not everybody can ride a bike or afford to ride one. The truth is that even in Davis, which is basically a flat city and doesn’t have the hills and valleys that Santa Cruz does, it’s not working.
Lookout: Melani, what kind of conversation is going on between you and your two sisters right now?
Clark: They still have tight bonds to the company, and we’re all clearly hoping for a “No On D” win June 7. It’s a threat to the company, and no one is comfortable with that.
Lookout: Your mom kept your dad’s dream going even though it wasn’t easy, right?
Clark: She was from Hawaii and was really homesick. My father had said to my mom long ago, “If anything ever happened to me, promise me you’ll run the company for one year before you make up your mind on what to do.” She kept to her word. And her one year ran into 28 years. So the pressure of not only Measure D, but decisions that are happening even at the Regional Transportation Commission, threaten the future of our Felton Branch Line.
Lookout: What drives you on the environmental part of the equation?
Clark: The big thing up here is our old-growth redwoods, the preservation of trees. It’s a very sensitive topic to me. Watching what happened at Big Basin with the CZU Complex [fire], and that really is a result of what we’re doing to our environment. These big fires that we’re having, and our old-growth trees that are starting to show stress from a lot of things. We have to be really smart right now. It doesn’t make any sense to be choosing a recreational trail over the railroad trail because we want as many second layers to protect the environment as we can have. We should not be in this situation.
If we’re looking at it from a recycling perspective and going, “Oh, we’re going to recycle glass but let’s just forget cardboard and aluminum,” that doesn’t make sense, and this is like making that decision. Everything needs to be recycled and every step that we can do to make the environment better, we need to do that now and that is adding bikes and walking and a train that is zero-emission to move people with mass transit as best we can.
Because we screwed it up. And now we need to make those decisions to fix it. And maybe sometimes those decisions come with sacrifice. We have to do that. What are we leaving our next generations if we don’t? It’s already heading in a horrible direction.
Lookout: Did this Measure D race get more personal than you would’ve hoped?
Mesiti-Miller: Well, I’m, frankly shocked at the personal attacks on me. I never expected that. The smear on my name, my reputation has been unbelievably shocking. To say the reason that I’ve made donations toward the campaign is to benefit myself through the firm that I sold seven years ago? I think that’s ludicrous. It’s dishonest. It’s disingenuous. It’s a smear.
It’s not only me, but it smears the good people who now own the firm. Those are two really great guys, and they’re doing really good work in our community and to smear me and them with an unfounded allegation that infers there’s some kind of financial hanky-panky going on. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s immoral.
Lookout: Some say that the No Way side has actually been the dirtier one down the stretch. Is that fair?
Mesiti-Miller: I’m unaware of anybody in the core campaign promulgating any kind of bad behavior. We have the utmost respect for the other side. We do not condone, encourage or stand for it. If you behave badly, we don’t want you in our campaign, period. We are straight-up above board. Can I control everybody in the county? Of course not. And are there people who don’t think correctly about this? Of course, there are. But our campaign, our core people, our spokespeople, we are completely committed to being as honest, straightforward and seeing the issue and not bringing up anything that isn’t about Measure D.
Lookout: How are you feeling about this thing with less than two weeks to go?
Mesiti-Miller: When Jerry Brown announced he was opposed to Measure D I was like, holy cow. This thing’s gotten so big, so quick. I get it. I understand. This has statewide impacts and Santa Cruz’s rail line is part of the state rail plan. The state doesn’t want to lose this rail line to a trail — that would really hurt the vision.
Clark: I would say that the San Lorenzo Valley is very strong “No On D.” There’s been an awful lot of support for Roaring Camp. When I meet with valley leaders and residents, they say it just makes sense because having rail and trail, both of them together, is what would benefit the greatest amount of people in Santa Cruz County. And it’s what they believe is the right thing to do.
Lookout: Will there be some emotional scars left over from this race?
Mesiti-Miller: My heart aches for our community. I really don’t like that we are torn apart, that people are so divided. I prefer that we work together, that we build a community that meets the needs of everyone, that doesn’t favor one group over another, that doesn’t leave people out.
Lookout: How do we bring people back together on June 8?
Mesiti-Miller: Melani, you up for a big party at Roaring Camp, invite the whole county? Have everyone around the BBQ pit?
Clark: Free train rides for everyone! … I think there needs to be healing. I hope that’s what happens. I think the nice thing is that the RTC is definitely moving ahead right now with all of the trails and designs. It’s exciting to see it moving along so I think as the trail gets built and people are able to use it, they’ll see that it is usable and it’s beautiful and enjoyable. I hope that that continues to move forward. And I hope that that will be what brings both sides together.
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