Scotts Valley, a (really nice) place apart

Skypark in Scotts Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Our Area Guide feature continues with Laura Albrecht digging into what makes the community of Scotts Valley a desirable spot to put down roots, with top attractions, where to eat, local characters and much more.

The second installment of Lookout’s Area Guides series, intended to capture what makes each community in Santa Cruz County unique, focuses on Scotts Valley. Find our Westside Area Guide here, and let us know what you’d like to see in them as we go forward at news@lookoutlocal.com.

The logo for Lookout's Scotts Valley area guide

It would be easy to drive through Scotts Valley and assume it is a middle-class haven for people who work in Silicon Valley. Yes, many tech workers live here. Another easy assumption would be that it is a city of generic shopping centers that lacks charm and culture. Yes, there are mostly shopping centers lining the city’s two main roads. But there is more to this humble valley than meets the eye.

Scotts Valley attracts families, retired folks and Silicon Valley workers with excellent schools, safe neighborhoods, a near-perfect climate and surrounding natural beauty, creating an ideal setting to live — if you can compete in the housing market and find suburban life appealing.

I lived in Scotts Valley from birth to the age of 17 (1984-2002). Like a true millennial, I returned to live in my childhood home as a young adult during stints of joblessness and between travel in the late 2000s. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I spent most of my teenage years trying to conceal the fact I was from Scotts Valley to avoid heckling from aggressive Santa Cruz locals. For example, the yellow bus I took to Harbor High School in the late 1990s was nicknamed the “shame train.” As an adult who has traveled across oceans and hemispheres and currently lives in Capitola, I have no shame calling Scotts Valley my hometown. I visit family and friends who live here every week and still delight in the small-town vibes.

There are many reasons my parents landed in Scotts Valley in 1977 — The trees! It’s close to the ocean! It’s easy to get to San José! There’s affordable real estate! and haven’t left since. This was a time when McDonald’s was the name of the local grocery store, and the valley over the hill was known as Santa Clara Valley. Today, McDonald’s has golden arches and Silicon has replaced Santa Clara. Then there’s the fact with which we all live: The words “affordable” and “real estate” don’t go together in Santa Cruz County anymore. Despite the changes, people like my parents and their neighbors have stayed in this valley and more have come to join them. Why? Scotts Valley is a balance between the buzz of the Bay Area and the weird of Santa Cruz — and provides easy access to both.

There’s this truism, but clearly not completely rooted in truth: “Nobody who works in Scotts Valley lives in Scotts Valley,” summed up Marc Winquist, who owned Mollie’s Country Cafe on Mount Hermon Road for 22 years before retiring. Winquist is one of the few who was able to make a living on his home turf.

The inverse seems plausible, too: Few who live in Scotts Valley work in Scotts Valley. The Apple and Google shuttles that transport residents from the Scotts Valley Metro station to Silicon Valley are indicative of that trend. But income disparities between Santa Cruz County and counties “over the hill” have been present for decades. My parents, both retired public school teachers, chose to commute to San José for more than 30 years because salaries for public teachers were simply higher there.

Santa Cruz has great weather much of the year, but visitors can be surprised by the foggy summer days and chilly temperatures. Scotts Valley, however, offers a near-perfect climate — that is, if you like pleasant sunny weather that doesn’t get too extreme. According to the BestPlaces comfort index, Scotts Valley is an 8.5 out of 10, with 10 being the best. That number moves to 9.5 during summer months. It is not uncommon to drive north out of foggy Santa Cruz and be welcomed by a burst of sunshine and blue sky at the Pasatiempo exit.

Family life is the cornerstone of Scotts Valley life. Simply put, it’s a great place to grow up. Safe streets, friendly neighbors, well-run schools, family-run businesses, parks and open space galore make the city an attractive place to build a home. And not only single-family homes. Mobile home communities are popular (there are 11 total) and appear impeccably maintained. Townhomes and condos are filled with families, too.

People in Scotts Valley spend time in their homes, yards and neighborhoods. They also spend a lot of time working — often somewhere else — but that’s changing as remote work becomes a norm. Neighbors check in on each other, drive in carpools and care for each other’s pets during travel. People wave when you drive past slowly. Or they shake a fist at you if you drive by too fast. There are a lot of Teslas. There are also a lot of Tesla charging stations.

Residents — especially young people — are quick to point out the city’s insular nature. Payton Lundberg, a senior at Scotts Valley High School, has moved through the public school system from start to finish. “I’ve been with the same people since middle school,” Lundberg says. “You don’t get a lot of diversity. All high schools are cliquey, but it’s hard to change friend groups because they were established in sixth grade.” Lundberg also notes the flipside of the family-friendly environment: the city doesn’t provide much for teenagers to do. “We hang out at someone’s house or in Santa Cruz. I like going downtown or to Eastside beaches.”

The Spring Lakes Mobile Home Park off Mount Hermon Road in Scotts Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With the upward trend in housing prices and an increase in population density in the Santa Cruz Mountains, some Scotts Valley residents worry the city of almost 12,000 is losing its charm and becoming a posh suburb to San José. Among them, Winquist, who has been in the valley since 1981, remains skeptical of the city’s growth. He worries about whether Scotts Valley will have sufficient services to support a larger population and more dense housing. Others, like real estate agent Mandy Draper, look to more growth. “The secret is out” about Scotts Valley, she says, and accepts it.

Nahed Hamdi, a resident of Montevalle mobile home park for nine years, sees the pluses and minuses. “It’s too suburban,” she says. “There’s not much to do but walk the dog. There are a couple of shopping centers, and that’s really it.” But Hamdi loves that she owns the land where her mobile home rests. And the full garage is a plus. Hamdi also appreciates the “gorgeous grounds” around her Bean Creek park, and that all the homes in her 55-plus community aren’t in neat rows.

Some city residents and workers hoped to see new affordable housing in town when the centrally located Valley Gardens Golf Course closed in 2018 and planners considered the 29-acre property for housing rezoning. But community members pushed back on developer Mark Robson’s proposal to build multilevel homes for two main reasons: First, many of the proposed homes were priced upward of $1 million, which didn’t qualify as affordable, and second, surrounding neighbors were concerned about decreased privacy and views as well as an increase in traffic. The weedy golf course remains undeveloped today. As all of us in Santa Cruz County can relate, affordable housing is hard to build, and it can be challenging to win community support for projects.

Historically, Scotts Valley has not known a defined town center. Over the years, buildings and green spaces have merged to create natural gathering places. The Metro station, public library, community theater and Skypark are all projects built in my lifetime that are close geographically and create some sense of community. But some aren’t satisfied yet. Acknowledges City Council Member Derek Timm, who has served as mayor, “This community checked every single box for us with the exception of having a central downtown. That is one of the reasons I am on the council — I would like to see that come to fruition.”

The Hangar at Skypark, with retail spaces for local businesses, forms part of a larger vision appropriately called Town Center, which Timm is working on with other city leaders. It’s a concept that’s been in discussion for more than 20 years, but multiple land-ownership issues have made it difficult to move forward with development. To date, opening retail space has been the only visible progress made on the project.

Scotts Valley has no shortage of hoofed denizens.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nature all around

Scotts Valley provides access to great nature wandering — on foot, on bike or on horseback. It is not rare to see a row of stables bordering a property or an equestrian using a paved road to get to a trailhead. The Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association, located on Graham Hill Road, sponsors riding events, clinics and other horsemanship activities.

We all know the old-growth redwoods that make the Santa Cruz Mountains an attraction, but the sandhills that populate the stretch of land between Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley offer a unique way to experience the natural history of this region. A quick geology lesson will help here: Roughly 10 million years ago, Scotts Valley and the surrounding basin were underwater. The remains of plants and animals of this time (think big sharks and carnivorous sperm whales) drifted to the seabed below. Those remains accumulated and hardened into a mix of sandstone and siltstone. Time passed, oceans receded, and the earth’s crust thrust upward to form the Santa Cruz Mountains. Slivers of the ancient ocean floor were revealed.

No one educated me on the geologic history of my backyard when I was 10, but digging up shark teeth in a sandhill near my childhood home was proof enough that this land is special. So special, in fact, that according to Lompico resident Ryan Masters, almost 4,000 acres of sandhill habitat support four plant species and two insect species endemic to this area. To build or alter a home near these habitats, you’ll need a biologist to survey the land before you can get a permit. The sandhills are also home to ponderosa pine and succulent flowering pussy paws, species typically found only in the High Sierra. These fragile and rare ecosystems rub elbows with the glorious redwoods, a natural juxtaposition that is truly delightful and unexpected.

Laura Albrecht is a freelance writer and graduate student studying Library & Information Science at San José State University. She lives with her family in Capitola. She spends her free time advocating for public libraries, getting poison oak while disc golfing, and staring at the horizon while floating on a longboard. Occasionally, she turns around to surf.

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