Arana Gulch project on hold, city regroups

The Arana Gulch Master Plan is on hold, but it may not dead. On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission agreed to grant the city of Santa Cruz a continuance in order to give it time to research alternatives to the Broadway-Brommer bicycle connection between Frederick Street and 7th Avenue. Some of the commissioners were concerned that the trail impeded on the federally endangered Santa Cruz Tarplant, which is indigenous to the area and was once a food source for Native Americans. Friday was a furlough day for Santa Cruz city employees. The day off gave those who worked on the project time to lick their wounds after the commission sent them back to the drawing board, delaying a project that has been in the works since the early 1990s and had survived a lawsuit and appeal by the California Native Plant Society and Friends of Arana Gulch. But when they head back to work this week, they will be looking forward to meeting with commission staff and fine tuning the project so it can pass this last hurdle, Chris Schneiter, civil engineer for the city, said from his home Friday. “We'll be getting together with the commission staff soon and try to get a clearer picture of what they think the commission wants,” he said. On the other side, opponents of the Arana Gulch Master Plan are celebrating the commission’s decision to take pause on the plan. “The Coastal Commission got it,” said Jean Brocklebank of Friends of Arana Gulch. “As FOAG has said for 15 years, Broadway-Brommer was conceived as a transportation project, has always been a transportation project and is, in no stretch of the imagination, a ‘resource-dependent project’ under California law -- Coastal Act Section 30240.” This section requires projects in environmentally sensitive habitats to educate and build appreciation of such sites. The 4.2 million project on the 68-acre former dairy farm calls for the paving of some existing dirt trails with 8-foot-wide paths to make the property more accessible to cyclists, hikers and the disabled. It also would provide a management plan of the tarplant in an attempt to help it thrive again. Biologist reports have said that no plan would mean the tarplant’s demise. During Thursday’s meeting, it was clear the commission was torn about the two-pronged project, both as a panel and as individuals. Below is a snippet of what they said before voting to see alternatives:
  • Commissioner Mark Stone, Santa Cruz:“In my mind, this boils down to the issue of ESHAs (environmentally sensitive habitat areas). The Coastal Act says that any development in ESHAs must be resource dependant. A lot of this project is transportation. But without all the components, we don’t get the management plan and we don’t get the benefit this community has been seeking for such a long time.”
  • Commissioner Sara Wan, Malibu: “The project, overall, this is a good one. There are a lot of pluses. But a bike road can’t go through an ESHA. This species is on the verge of extinction. The only way to save a species on the verge of extinction is to save its habitat. The road could add to the possibility of extinction of the species. We just can’t take a chance on the extinction of a species.”
  • Commissioner Esther Sanchez, Oceanside:“This began as a transportation project and I believe it still is. I could support the plan minus the transportation component. If the transportation project was on the edge of the tarplant area, the impact would be less significant.”
  • Vice Chair Mary Shallenberger, San Francisco: “I am not at all convinced that because this is better than with they started with, this is the best project. My queasiness with this is that we are dealing with an endangered plant. Time is of the essence to do something about it. But this project is not resource dependent. All the testimony we had was for people to commute and get off unsafe bike paths. I’m sympathetic but it’s not coastal policy. Most of this is a terrific plan and I don’t want to see it go down. There seems to be lots of alternatives to get a path through this ESHA.”
  • Commissioner Richard Bloom, Santa Monica: “The commission has a diversity of opinions. I respect all the opinions but they’re very divergent. I have to wonder if it’s simply setting up another extension of the process that will shuffle divergent opinions, but will come back with similar situation faced with today. I really do think that this project has changed from what it was intentioned as. My conclusion is that is does comply with the coastal act.”
  • Chair Bonnie Neely, Eureka:“Without any intervention, this plant will go extinct. The commission has approved projects of trails through ESHA, including the Grover Beach Boardwalk, the Morro Bay Harborwalk, and the Monterey Dunes Recreation Trail. That question, I think, staff has correctly addressed in the passed. We must address this on a case by case basis. This is not precedent setting.”
  • Commission Alternate James Wicket, San Francisco:“This is not about a bike path as much as it is about saving the tarplant. We can study this for 15 – 20 years. In the meantime, unless we take some proactive action, we loose more and more of the seedbed. I was prepared to support staff on this today. If the commission wants to come up with alternatives and the city is willing to do that, I’d be fine with that, too. I know there’s no easy answer on this.”
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