Water, housing and who decides what: New ruling addresses long-standing UCSC/city issues

An image provided by Santa Cruz LAFCO shows the UCSC campus and proposed projects outside of the city limits.
An image provided by Santa Cruz LAFCO shows the UCSC campus and proposed projects outside of the city limits.
(Via Santa Cruz LAFCO)

Almost everyone agrees that Santa Cruz needs more housing. As UCSC plans expansion, including more housing, providing water to the university is an issue. Maybe that’s about the water, and maybe it’s about who decides whether that water will be provided. After UC Santa Cruz filed a lawsuit in October 2020 arguing that the City of Santa Cruz was required to provide water access to parts of its campus located outside of city limits, a judge ruled on Aug. 31 that the city isn’t required to. The judge further ruled that the university has to seek authorization from a local commission.

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A dispute between the City of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz that has appeared to be about water access for the university’s north campus area looks to really be about housing and control.

The long-running argument took a new turn Aug. 31, when Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann ruled that the city isn’t obligated to provide water access to UCSC property sitting outside of city limits.

That ruling rejected UC Santa Cruz’s claim that the City of Santa Cruz is legally obligated to provide water for its emerging “north campus” projects — generally laid out in the campus’ most recent long-range development plan (LRDP), which aims to increase on-campus housing in response to acute local housing needs.

UCSC had argued that the city had to provide water to the area — even though, unlike the current inhabited campus, it is outside city limits — based on contracts signed in 1962 and 1965, just as the university was founded.

Volkmann ruled that the city is in compliance with those contracts and that the university must apply to a local commission — the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) — to obtain water access from the city for property outside of city limits.

“The ball is in the university’s court at this point,” Santa Cruz City Attorney Tony Condotti told Lookout on Tuesday.

He said the city has not taken a position on whether it would provide the access, but that it does support the university submitting an application to the commission and resolving the question of access in that process.

An image provided by LAFCO Santa Cruz shows proposed projects on the UCSC's north campus area outside of city limits.
An image provided by LAFCO Santa Cruz shows proposed projects on the UCSC’s north campus area outside of city limits.
(Via Santa Cruz LAFCO)

That’s the control question here. While Condotti says the city generally supports more campus housing, it asserts its legal rights in this case. That question — how much a UC campus, a part of a state entity, is subject to local control — is really at the heart of this dispute, perhaps more so than the apparent question of water provision.

City of Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard said over the next 20 years, the university projects to need an additional 190 million gallons of water annually to meet the needs of the additional housing it intends to provide. It currently uses about 160 million gallons.

“We’ve already incorporated it [the 190 million gallons] into our planning,” she said.

If water for the north campus is already in the works, then what is the campus’ case?

Assistant vice chancellor and spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said in a statement that UCSC is asking the city to “fulfill the promises” it made when it convinced the board of regents to choose Santa Cruz for a UC campus in the early ‘60s — promises that included providing water service.

The statement further argued that providing access to water service to the entire residential campus “would help UC Santa Cruz build housing, classrooms and space for research and creative scholarship, and fulfill its commitment to the local community and faculty, staff and students.”

The university’s statement emphasized its commitment to reducing water use — something Menard also recognized. She said the university has been a great partner for “aligning their water use practices with best practices.”

So what are the next moves?

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling and are determining our next steps,” said Hernandez-Jason.

UCSC can appeal, having 60 days to do so once the ruling is finalized. Or it can apply to LAFCO for water-access authorization.

LAFCO is led by an 11-member commission made up of local government officials, district members and residents. Commissioners include Capitola City Council Member Yvette Brooks and Santa Cruz County Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Zach Friend, among others.

If the university were to submit an application to LAFCO to obtain City of Santa Cruz water access, it would take about one year for analyses to be completed and for the county and city to provide input, according to LAFCO Executive Officer Joe Serrano.

Aerial view looking out across the UCSC campus and Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He said the agency can’t force the city to provide water; rather, the county, the city, LAFCO and the university must come to an agreement on the conditions.

“Unless all four of them support it, we can’t approve it,” Serrano said.

He added that since 2001, state law has required that local LAFCOs authorize water access to areas outside of city limits. He said going through Santa Cruz LAFCO would help the city determine whether to provide the service and under what conditions.

At this point, the university has not responded to questions about applying to LAFCO.

How big a role does student housing play in this dispute?

UCSC’s long-range development plan shows proposals for student and employee housing in the north campus area. Based on the plan, Serrano said, there would also be a roadway and academic facilities.

Project details are few for that development. The area, which lies outside Santa Cruz city limits, now includes a natural reserve, an emergency water-storage tank, some minor infrastructure, fire roads and trails, and long-term research plots, according to the LRDP. The document serves as a guide for development for the next 20 years, rather than a detailed plan.

If the matter does move to Santa Cruz LAFCO, numerous questions may be raised — with housing prominent among them.

“It could include such factors, for instance, is the new development going to ease some of the existing burden placed on the city’s rental housing market by the underdevelopment of on-campus housing?” Condotti said. “So that could be a factor.”

Condotti said he doesn’t think costs are a major factor in the decision. Based on his understanding, he said, the university would build the infrastructure, which it would also own and operate.

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