Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.
Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.

The Santa Cruz Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) is preparing to make an important decision as to whether or not UC Santa Cruz should be allowed to expand into the undeveloped area known as North Campus.

In a 2008 comprehensive settlement agreement, the university agreed to apply to LAFCO, a local boundary commission, to expand water and sewer services to North Campus. This agreement is seen as a promising start to improving campus-community relations, because it has settled many lawsuits — brought by the city and community groups — regarding the expansion proposed in UCSC’s Long-Range Development Plan.

The 2008 deal stipulates that in return for expansion of these services to North Campus, the university is obligated to house 67 percent of the anticipated additional 4,500 students on campus. However, if LAFCO delays approval or denies the university’s application, UCSC is no longer required to house the promised amount of students.

Vice Mayor Ryan Coonerty, who is also a UCSC legal studies professor, explained the importance of LAFCO’s approval to the future of campus-community relations.

“If LAFCO doesn’t approve of the deal it would be bad for both sides,” Coonerty said. “For the city, housing students on campus is a very big deal because it not only takes the pressure off of housing for the city, it also means that there is less traffic to the university.”

LAFCO’s executive officer Pat McCormick said that the housing provision of the agreement, which depends on the commission’s approval, would not influence its decision.

“LAFCO will make its decision based on its mission and its responsibilities under state law,” McCormick said. “But we are certainly aware of the way the agreement is structured.”

McCormick said that LAFCO must take a finalized Environmental Impact Report (EIR) into account before making any decisions. The comment period on the first draft of the EIR, which enabled groups and individuals to suggest changes or additions to the report, ended on Jan. 19. A finalized EIR will be released after all of these concerns are taken into account.

The EIR reveals that while the expansion of water and sewer services can be accommodated during normal conditions, water is short during the dry summer months and in drought conditions. McCormick said that LAFCO had read the draft EIR and suggested, among other things, that the final EIR adequately address the potential burden that the additional consumption would place on water resources.

“LAFCO is asking for the EIR to have additional drought mitigations,” McCormick said. “What more can the city and the university do to reduce additional demand during drought periods if that occurs?”

Bill Kocher, the Santa Cruz water director, explained that there is enough water to meet the needs of UCSC expansion, and that this increase has been expected and prepared for since the 2008 agreement was reached.

“The truth is that an amount of water exists in the system,” Kocher said. “We’ve already anticipated their need for that water in our planning. It has already been admitted to them, in a sense.”

Coonerty explained that the 2008 deal actually encourages UCSC’s conservation efforts, since the university must pay a premium for any additional water consumed. UCSC also agreed to abide by water rationing during times of drought. He used these examples to demonstrate improved cooperation between the university and the city.

“The city and the university are working together like they never worked together before,” Coonerty said. “We’re doing collaborative planning, UCSC is putting in new water-saving conservation efforts — really working together.”

However, Coonerty warned that the period of improved cooperation brought about by the 2008 settlement agreement could come to an end if LAFCO denies approval, causing the housing provision of the deal to fall through.

“One of my other fears is if this breaks down, we’ll go back to the days where we didn’t talk to them and they didn’t talk to us,” Coonerty said. “We can get a lot more done to improve the quality of life for everybody through cooperation.”