The county commission charged with promoting orderly growth put off a decision on whether to allow the University of California, Santa Cruz to build on 240 acres of forest land.
The members of LAFCO – the Local Agency Formation Commission – voted 4-3 to wait before deciding on whether to allow the campus to expand until the city deals with federal mandates requiring it to have enough water to protect endangered fish.
The room was packed with students who were against the new buildings, favoring the forest for environmental reasons. On the other side, Santa Cruz city officials said that after years of lawsuits, the University was now growing intelligently and with the needs of the community in mind. The college's plan is to grow from 16,332 to 19,500 students by 2020.
The main issue is water: whether there is enough for more students, while the city was already taking too much from the rivers and endangering the salmon and steelhead that were once plentiful.
The city is under federal mandates to come up with ways to protect the fish. One of its controversial proposals is to build a $100 million desalination plant to make sure there is enough fresh water to drink and to keep rivers flowing during drought years.
However, there is a strong movement against spending the money, and against the growth that more water might encourage. The issue will come to a vote by 2014.
It is LAFCO's responsibility to ensure that any growth into undeveloped areas is supported "an adequate, sustainable, and reliable water source."
Rather than vote on the proposal, the commission voted on a new compromise offered by board member John Leopold, who is also a county supervisor. Leopold suggested waiting to decide and also to cut down by 15 percent the amount of water the University could use without having to pay surcharges for conservation.
The city of Santa Cruz already has an agreement with the University allowing it 206 million gallons of water a year before the college has to pay for conservation measures such as lawns and low flow toilets in the city. However, the 240 acres it wants to build on are not in the city limits, so LAFCO took up the issue.
Commissioners Jim Anderson, Roger Anderson and Jim Rapoza voted with Leopold to hold off the vote. Don Lane, Daniel Dodge and Neil Coonerty preferred to approve the growth.
Two former Santa Cruz mayors spoke in favor of the University. Mike Rotkin, a UCSC professor who was laid off several months ago, said that he had been part of three lawsuits against the campus and had no reason to be a booster, but favored the current proposal because he said that the administration had learned to promote intelligent growth.
Part of the campus's change over the years has been in conservation. It has cut water use 30 percent since 2003 and has agreed to remain water neutral by paying extra for any water it uses over the 206 million gallon threshold.
Former Mayor Ryan Coonerty said that allowing the college to grow and house more students on its campus would cut traffic and housing demands in the city. Not allowing the growth could jeopardize the current agreement, he said.
"Prior to this agreement, the University was spending more than a million dollars a year suing us and we were spending about half a million dollars suing them. That came out of student fees, that came out of classrooms, that came out of Parks and Rec programs. A rejection today, a denial today, or a delay today, puts us back in the position of uncertain outcomes."
The Comprehensive Settlement Agreement, which came out of those years of lawsuits, is a win-win for both the city and the University, Coonerty argued, and failure to ratify it could lead back into the courtroom.
"Be sure, and very clear that if you say no, delay or put unreasonable conditions, the University continues to grow in the city, and they create negative impacts on traffic, on housing, impacts on our water system...they grow not on campus which has greater impact on the city and it puts us back in an era of contentious law suits."
Coonerty also argued that the University's expansion plan is vital for it serve lower income students because it will provide affordable student housing on campus.
"We are trying to keep the door open to higher education. It's the wealthy, higher income students who will find their way to college; it's the lower income students and their families who will find the door closed," Coonerty said.
George Blumenthal, the school's chancellor, wrote a letter to the hearing saying that nearly half of its current freshman class will be the first in their families to attend college.
Leopold argued that it is LAFCO's responsibility to ensure that the city has adequate drought security and is in compliance with State and Federal wildlife conditions, prior to extending further water rights to the University.
"As important as the Comprehensive Settlement Agreement is, it is not more important than compliance with the Endangered Species Act, or the impacts of climate change," he said. "We need to assure ourselves that we have an adequate and sustainable water supply. One of the things that has been very troubling to me is that there are some big question marks whether the city has that supply."
One of the major 'question marks' Leopold referred to was the future of the desalination plant, which has long been on the table as a possible drought security device, the future of which was well encapsulated by Jonathan Wittwer, spokesperson for the Community Water Coalition, which opposes the plant.
"The Desalination plant is now going to go to a vote, and we all know it's future is uncertain. That was what was going to take care of a drought, but that certainly isnt sustainable or reliable at this point."
Wittwer shared Leopold's concern that the City was undermining it's water security in it's effort to make an amicable agreement with the University.
"What we have now, in effect, is the University asking to move to the front of the line of our water problems," said Wittwer.
"We are a water system that does not have adequate supply to meet existing demand in drought conditions, or adequate long-term supply during normal years. Those are the findings you are about to make, and they do not purport to the LAFCO policies which you just adopted not that long ago, that require a finding that the city demonstrate an 'adequate, sustainable, and reliable,' supply of water prior to expanding its water service to new areas."
Commissioner Don Lane argued that the University has agreed to water-neutral growth, meaning they will off-set the increase in water demand by paying for water conservation efforts elsewhere, and thus "if there is no new demand on the system, we don't need proof of adequate, reliable and sustainable water supply because the new growth is not creating any new demand on the system."
Rick Longinotti, founder of Desal Alternatives, pointed out the importance of water conservation in light of a looming Federal mandate to improve habitat for endangered salmon;
"It raises a question: Should a measure of the City's conservation methods be used to offset University growth, or does the City need all the conservation measures it can muster just to reduce its water demand to a level that meets fish habitat guidelines? Now, I don't know the answer to that question, the city water department doesn't know the answer to that question, and if you don't know the answer to that question, then I think you should wait until the answer is known until you make any big decisions."
At the end of Monday's session, 4 of the 7 commissioners seemed aligned with Longinotti's.
Dozens of people, mainly UCSC students and faculty, addressed the Commission Wednesday, the majority of whom were staunchly opposed to the University's plan to build new student housing and a social sciences building on what is now undeveloped forest land to the North of campus.
Many speakers expressed the belief that the University's expansion plan ran directly counter to it's reputation for being on the cutting edge of wildlife and outdoor education programs, and that the land now slated for development plays a key role in facilitating that natural education.
"The ability of students to explore the environment in upper campus is the unique thing about this university," said Bryce Winter, a graduate student. "Students come here and are introduced to the lifeblood of this Green movement and sustainability. The University really likes to tout this green, sustainable image, and I think this land is a vital part of upholding that. "
Other speakers denied that an expansion of the campus was necessary to provide quality education.
Ann Tsing, Anthropology faculty member at UCSC said,
"Almost no one at the University believes that an expansion of this sort will improve or even maintain the quality of education at UC Santa Cruz. Because of the current problems at the University, most believe that this type of expansion will spread very few resources among more students," Tsing said.
"LAFCO should act because it will force the University to look at contemporary conditions which are very changed from ten years ago when this draft plan was made, and force us to use current conditions to think about how to keep the University on its mission."
Abigail Putnam, an undergraduate, shared the complaint of many who protested teaching cuts last week on campus.
"I can't understand how they plan on funding a campus expansion when they cannot provide a good education to students who are already here," she said. "I understand their is a lot of talk of restricting education to people who can't afford it, but they are restricting education to the students who are already here."
Joe Christie, chairman of rural Bonny Doon Association said "buildings don't educate people, faculty educates people."
Charlie Eadie, former UCSC campus planning director and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, said the fear of campus expansion is a historical pattern in Santa Cruz;
"There were 3,600 students on the campus when I started. There were plenty of people just like today, who were saying things like 'close the doors at 5,000, or 7,000'. Many of these students wouldn't be here today if the campus hadn't opened the doors."