City of Santa Cruz, UCSC in talks to possibly end lawsuits over enrollment and housing plans

An aerial view of the UC Santa Cruz campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

UC Santa Cruz and the City of Santa Cruz have been embroiled in a lawsuit since February 2022 over UCSC’s plan to boost enrollment by an additional 8,500 students by 2040. The Long Range Development Plan, approved in 2021, set off a wave of lawsuits from the city and the county over potential worsening impacts on the region’s housing market. But now, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley says the two sides are in talks to end the LRDP lawsuit and a second, separate lawsuit related to water access on campus.

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The City of Santa Cruz is in talks with UC Santa Cruz to potentially end a long-running dispute over enrollment growth and housing.

UCSC and the City of Santa Cruz have been involved in a lawsuit since February 2022 over the university’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). The plan lays out UCSC’s vision of growth, including enrolling an additional 8,500 students by 2040, bringing the total student population to 28,000. The University of California Board of Regents approved the plan in 2021, setting off a wave of lawsuits from the city and the county over potential worsening impacts on the region’s housing inventory, among other repercussions.

But now, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley says, the two sides are in talks to end the LRDP lawsuit and an additional lawsuit related to water access. Keeley said that over the past month or so — including two conversations in the past week — he’s spoken in person and over the phone with UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and two UC regents about meeting outside of court to come to an agreement.

“The chancellor and I talked on [April 10] for what I would call a shape-of-the-table discussion, as opposed to a substantive discussion about the issues involved,” Keeley said. “She is interested in having a campus-level meeting with her and their legal counsel, myself and the appropriate staff from the city and that we sit down for — I suspect more than one meeting — where we can talk with each other on the couple of pieces of litigation outside of the courts.”

Keeley said their first formal meeting will be the morning of May 12.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the campus is interested in resolving both lawsuits.

“We are interested in continuing meetings with the city to explore agreements about our LRDP and water access that might be reached outside the courts,” he wrote to Lookout last week.

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At the UC regents meeting last month, Keeley publicly supported the UCSC’s Student Housing West project and also publicly commented that the city wanted to reach an agreement outside of litigation. City Attorney Anthony P. Condotti described Keeley’s gesture at that meeting as the city extending an “olive branch.”

“My opinion is litigation is a sign of failure, not a sign of success,” Keeley told Lookout earlier this month. “And if it’s possible, if the regents want to, if the [UC] Office of the President wants to — it was a sincere offer from the city — we would like to see if we can make something happen. If the answer’s no, then the litigation moves along.”

Litigation and LRDPs

Tensions have simmered for decades between city officials and the university over UCSC’s future enrollment plans. City leaders have pushed for caps on UCSC’s enrollment growth over concerns about traffic, housing and water, while the university continues to face pressure to admit a growing number of students eager to gain the skills to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.

In its lawsuit over the 2021 LRDP, the city contends that UCSC’s plans don’t adequately consider the impact on the local community if the university were to fail to house all of its projected new students.

City officials say that delays in building on-campus housing have already exacerbated the Santa Cruz rental market — which was determined to be the second-least affordable in the country last year.

Throughout the dispute over the 2021 LDRP, the city has pushed for a binding commitment that the university would house all of its new students to reduce impacts on the local rental market, but the university has refused. The County of Santa Cruz filed a similar lawsuit around the same time last year.

It wouldn’t be the first time UCSC signed a binding commitment to house a percentage of newly enrolled students. Local officials pushed for a binding agreement from UCSC following the approval of the previous LRDP, which dates back to 2005 and was replaced in 2021 when the new LRDP was approved.

The city, county and nine citizens filed a lawsuit challenging the 2005 LRDP on the grounds that its environmental impact report needed a better analysis of the effects on water, traffic and housing. The parties hired a mediator in 2007 and reached an agreement in 2008.

As part of that settlement, the university was required to house two-thirds of its newly enrolled students and cap enrollment growth at 19,480 through 2021, down from a planned 21,000, according to Ryan Coonerty, who helped negotiate the deal while on the Santa Cruz City Council.

“It’s a perennial issue,” said Coonerty. “For the 2005 LRDP we entered into negotiation, and for the first time, we got a binding commitment by the university to address housing, water and traffic and to tie their commitments to enrollment. It wasn’t a perfect agreement, but I think it provided a framework for the city and the university to not be in perpetual litigation.”

He said the university complied with all the requirements in the settlement, including adding enough beds to house two-thirds of newly enrolled students. UCSC has not built any new student housing since 2002, but it has increased capacity through structural modifications including adding floors to residential buildings and adding additional beds to existing rooms — turning doubles into triples, for instance.”

A sign on the UC Santa Cruz campus
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While serving on the county board of supervisors, Coonerty tried to reach another binding agreement with UCSC in 2021 over its newest LRDP. By that time, the housing situation was significantly worse in the community, and the city and county wanted the university to agree to house 100% of new enrollment.

“I was involved in negotiations trying to reach a settlement agreement for this, but unfortunately didn’t get it,” Coonerty said. “One thing that I keep coming back to is, it’s easy to think that the university and this city, or the community, are at odds, but in actuality — I teach up there — the faculty, staff and students suffer just as much from a lack of housing as community members.”

Sources told Lookout that during the 2021 negotiations, Larive, along with county and city officials, were working on another binding agreement that would work for the new LRDP that linked housing and enrollment.

But, the sources said, lawyers for the UC regents opposed the plans because the UC system was under pressure to increase enrollment and didn’t want to create a precedent for other UC campuses struggling to build housing in other cities.

After the conversations fell through in late 2021, the city filed its lawsuit in February 2022, and the county also filed its complaint.

When asked about the description of how Larive pursued a new binding agreement until UC regents’ lawyers stopped it, Hernandez-Jason said the account was “not accurate,” but declined to elaborate.

“Campus, city and county leaders signed an agreement prior to the approval of the LRDP that laid the groundwork to have formal discussions about charting a path forward and resolving concerns connected to the 2021 LDRP,” he wrote via email. “Those focused conversations began in earnest in fall 2021, but did not achieve the resolution that we had hoped for.”

Keeley said the University of California has constitutional independence, and sticks to tradition — the institution doesn’t make decisions in isolation, because what happens on one campus can affect what happens on another.

“They are reluctant to engage in precedent-setting actions,” he said. “So they’re incredibly careful and I think they should be. I don’t disagree with that one bit. But we’re now at a place where ... everybody seems to think that sitting down, trying to work something out on our two pieces of litigation could be fruitful.”

Other UC campuses, including UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara, have seen similar battles with the cities they inhabit. Eventually, UC Davis, the City of Davis and the County of Yolo signed a memorandum of understanding in 2018 that included a commitment for the university to “provide on-campus housing for 100% of the actual student population in excess of the baseline enrollment of 33,825 students.” The agreement also included a timeline for new projects.

The MOU is a “softer” agreement than a legally binding commitment requiring the university to house all of its new students, Keeley says. For any bed that isn’t delivered within six months of the agreed-upon timeline, UC Davis pays local governments $500, split 80%-20% between the city and county. The established deadlines for new housing could also be amended for reasons outside the university’s control, including third-party litigation.

While Keeley said he doesn’t imagine necessarily using contracts like Davis’ as a model, he thinks there’s an opportunity for compromise, considering that two other UC campuses have reached agreements around housing and student enrollment. He wouldn’t say what, if anything, the city would concede in order to strike a compromise with UCSC.

County Board of Supervisors Chair Zach Friend told Lookout recently that he would be open to starting conversations with the university to end the county’s lawsuit over the LRDP, but added that it’s a decision for the board as a whole.

“Ultimately, we need to ensure these students have housing, and locating the housing on campus has always been the covenant,” he said.

Other barriers to new student housing: water access

Keeley said the city is also hoping to come to an agreement with UCSC to resolve a separate lawsuit over whether the city is required to supply water to UCSC property outside of city limits. The resolution of that case could have direct impacts on the university’s housing plans.

UCSC argued that an agreement signed decades ago committed the city to supplying water to the campus, including areas just outside of the city limits. One crucial area is northeast of the campus core, where the university is considering a potential pair of new residential colleges.

In August, a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge ruled that the city isn’t obligated to provide water access to the property outside of city limits. Judge Timothy Volkmann said the university had to apply to the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to get permission to get water from the city for property outside of city limits.

The university is appealing the ruling, though Keeley says he is hopeful the appeal can also be resolved outside of court.

“We know [water access] is very, very important to them, and they know that this housing business is very, very important to us,” he said. “So now, we’re all motivated to sit down and see what we can get done.”

UCSC's 2021 Long Range Development Plan.
UCSC’s 2021 Long Range Development Plan shows areas for potential growth of student housing — including two pairs of residential colleges, as seen in the map on the right — for the next 20 years.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

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