Illustration by Christine Hipp

How should UC Santa Cruz expand its campus — or should it? That question has fueled nearly a decade of contentious debate between supporters and opponents of UCSC’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). Due to the terms of a lawsuit that many say redefined the relationship between UCSC and the city of Santa Cruz, the answer may depend upon the decision of a previously little-known administrative body called the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).

At its next meeting on Oct. 10, LAFCO will make a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the future of UCSC’s campus and students.

How LAFCO ended up in this position is just as important to understand as the decision itself. Spanning everything from student protests to nearly a dozen lawsuits, the LRDP’s past is a troubled one, and the LAFCO meeting is merely its most recent installment.

In the Beginning

The LRDP is a 15-year future development plan required of all UC campuses that outlines how each university will grow in order to uphold their mandate to educate all of California’s eligible high school graduates. First unveiled in 2004, UCSC’s current LRDP would largely focus new construction on 247 acres of forest in the north campus area above Colleges Nine and Ten.

Among other things, the plan calls for research facilities, student housing and new colleges to be built on the north campus site, in order to accommodate a proposed 16 percent increase in the student body that would boost the number of students from 16,450 to 19,500.

Opponents of the LRDP cite its potential negative effects on traffic and housing in Santa Cruz, as well as possible unforeseen impacts on the environment and the city’s water supply as reasons to halt or scale back the plan. On the other hand, the university maintains that it has an obligation to meet the needs of future students — and that means expansion.

Shortly after the LRDP was announced in 2004, concerned citizens in Santa Cruz began to form groups and hold meetings to oppose the plan. Because UC campuses were established by State law they are normally exempt from local land use policies, a fact that meant legal action was one of the only options available to the LRDP’s detractors.

“We saw [what] it would entail and we thought to ourselves ‘This is something we definitely don’t want to happen,’” said Ted Benhari, who served on the executive board of the Coalition to Limit University Expansion (CLUE), a Santa Cruz nonprofit formed in 2005 in response to the LRDP.

In 2006 several lawsuits were filed against UCSC by both the city and county of Santa Cruz, CLUE, additional community organizations and 11 private individuals. These lawsuits charged that UCSC had violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by misrepresenting the potential impacts of the LRDP, which were outlined in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Those lawsuits were combined into one in 2007, and Judge Burdick of the Santa Cruz Superior Court ruled that the EIR had been deficient in its estimation of the LRDP’s impacts on traffic, housing, and the city’s water supply. He then ordered all the parties involved to a year of mediation in an attempt to fashion a set of terms they could agree upon.

The Comprehensive Settlement Agreement (CSA) reached through that mediation process required UCSC to make payments of an undisclosed amount to the city of Santa Cruz in order to mitigate the LRDP’s impact on traffic and the city’s water supply. UCSC would also be required to apply to LAFCO to have the city’s water and sewage services extended to the north campus site. In exchange, the city agreed not to oppose that service extension and the other parties agreed to end their suits.

Responses to the CSA were varied, but the importance of the standard it set for future relations between the city and UCSC was acknowledged by many involved.

“In its own way [the CSA] was a landmark document because for the first time UCSC formally recognized the impacts they have on the community and agreed to try and ameliorate them,” Benhari said. “They had pretty much rode roughshod over the community before this.”

UCSC’s director of public information, Jim Burns, also emphasized the CSA’s significance.

“It’s a historic document, and there’s a reason why people keep referring to it,” Burns said. “Because for the first time we all decided to figure out how to live in this community together and to do it responsibly, and not in a manner that deprives the university of its right to fulfill its educational mission.”

Since then however, numerous student protests have erupted over the amount of forest that would be cut down to make room for the LRDP’s projects. At the same time, the ability of the city’s water supply to support more users is still hotly contested.

The issue of UCSC’s future expansion remains far from settled.

“The city council seems happy with the CSA because they got millions of dollars to help mitigate the impacts UCSC has on the city,” Benhari said. “On the other hand the north campus development still means growth beyond what we consider to be the city’s carrying capacity.”

UCSC is now free to begin construction elsewhere on campus, but before the north campus development goes forward LAFCO’s approval of the service extension will be required. Although UCSC never technically waived its belief that it is not subject to LAFCO’s jurisdiction due to its state mandate, in the spirit of the CSA the city and university agreed to submit their application to the agency.

Since the vast majority of the projects outlined in the LRDP take place on the north campus site, the conditions under which LAFCO approves the application — if it approves it at all — will have a huge impact on the direction of UCSC’s future growth.

Upper Campus is pending development. Environmental concerns and city restrictions may restrict the Long Range Development Plan. Photo by Sal Ingram.

Caught in the Middle

Staffed by seven locally elected officials, LAFCO “was created by State law in 1963 to regulate the boundaries of cities,” according to its website. The agency regularly makes decisions involving city planning and water concerns, but they rarely attract much public interest.

That changed as soon as opponents of the LRDP began to regard LAFCO as their best hope for halting north campus development.

“We saw LAFCO as one of the only local bodies that had any power to control the proposed expansion,” Benhari said. “So of course we tried to make our voices heard in the dialogue.”

When LAFCO agreed to start holding hearings on UCSC’s and the city’s application in December of 2011, the agency’s once quiet and relatively insular meetings soon became the main battleground for the LRDP debate.

“It’s been kind of like ‘Hey LAFCO, we never knew you existed before, but we figured out that you’ve got the ability to limit the university’s expansion. You can throw a monkey wrench in their plans by just saying no,’” said Patrick McCormick, the executive director of LAFCO, who is responsible for the agency’s day-to-day operations but does not vote on its decisions.

At LAFCO’s most recent meeting on June 6, the room was packed as students, faculty and community members gathered to voice their opposition to the north campus development. The amount of forest slated to be destroyed in the north campus development and the fragility of Santa Cruz’s water supply remained the key concerns voiced by the LRDP’s opponents.

“The quality of the testimony has been incredibly high,” said LAFCO commissioner John Leopold. “We’ve now had a number of hearings where we’ve heard very powerful testimonies from the public. And on the other side we’ve heard the same stories from the city and university, they haven’t changed their tune. They keep saying ‘we have a CSA.’ But they’re not addressing the issue.”

Many of those interested in the outcome of the decision have noted the sensitive position LAFCO now finds itself in.

“I think that it’s very rare for the city and the university to get along super well and I think they were about to get along on this, if LAFCO had complied,” said Nadia Peralta, a fourth-year individualized major at UCSC and a member of the Save the Forest Coalition (SFC), a student organization composed of multiple groups that oppose the LRDP.  “So I think that LAFCO’s kind of caught in the middle.”

The main issue at stake is LAFCO’s attempt to determine the conditions under which UCSC and the city’s application might be approved. The specifics of those conditions continue to be the subject of much controversy.

“Between December 2011 and June 6, either the city or the university has threatened to sue us 13 times,” Leopold said.

LAFCO has also faced pressure from those opposed to the LRDP, who want the agency to impose harsher conditions or simply say no altogether.

LAFCO’s water policy, adopted in 2011, provides the guidelines that the conditions will be based on. It dictates that in order to be approved, new projects which make use of the city’s water supply must demonstrate an “adequate, reliable and sustainable” source of water.

The adoption of that policy proved to be more contentious than LAFCO’s commissioners had anticipated.

“In February of 2011, just five days before the policy was about to be adopted, [LAFCO] got an 18-page letter from the city of Santa Cruz telling us that it was nice that we did this but that we had no power to do these things, and we thought it indicated that they were going to sue us over it,” Leopold said. “And that didn’t make people happy.”

That lawsuit never materialized, however, and the rules of that water policy are now being used to determine the conditions in question.

“So that’s actually one of the reasons it’s taken LAFCO so long to make a decision,” said Gary Patton, an environmental lawyer who represents a nonprofit that sued UCSC over the LRDP. “They’re trying to make sure that when they make a decision, it’ll be as legally strong as possible, since they’ve been threatened with litigation from both the city and university.”

Some of the nonprofit organizations that oppose the LRDP have even stated publicly that they would provide legal assistance to LAFCO in the event of a lawsuit. Provided, of course, that LAFCO’s conditions are tough enough.

The Devil is in The Details

The first condition proposed by LAFCO is that the north campus construction projects be “water neutral,” meaning that any water used by those facilities must somehow be offset by conservation projects in other parts of Santa Cruz on a “drop by drop basis,” Leopold said.

“It’s an elegant concept really, water neutral growth,” McCormick said. “It also implies that if your program isn’t delivering conservation, then you’re not going to grow.”

The plan that the city and UCSC have come up with to achieve this calls for the University to make a lump sum payment to the city every time a new facility is opened. The city would then use that money to replace lawns with artificial turf and purchase low-flow washing machines to replace higher water-usage units owned by residents of Santa Cruz.

While UCSC has already reduced its overall water consumption by roughly 30 percent in the past two years thanks to the installation of low-flow toilets, showers, sprinkler-heads and other projects, LAFCO commissioners remain skeptical of the ability of UCSC to be truly water neutral if more construction were to occur.

“They’ve accomplished a significant amount of water conservation up on campus,” Leopold said. “What we don’t know is whether there’s much more additional work they can do to conserve water to offset the expansion of the north campus. If they can’t realize it on campus, is there really the ability to realize it off campus?”

Furthermore, McCormick said in his opinion, UCSC should be looking at additional ways water can be conserved on campus, instead of trying to achieve water neutrality solely by offsetting its usage through conservation efforts in the city.

“It’s a fascinating issue to think about,” McCormick said. “You know, here’s this green university with a lot of academic assets but they really aren’t showing any state of the art leadership in water usage. The university is doing all the standard stuff…but it’s only done just the basic stuff that everybody is doing when it comes to water conservation.”

The water use issue is compounded by the fact that even under current conditions, Santa Cruz’s water supply can become dangerously low during drought years.

“The city itself has said that it doesn’t have enough water to handle a multi-year drought, and that’s why they’re exploring options for increasing supply,” Burns said. “That’s irrespective of anything that’s happening at the University.”

This problem has led Santa Cruz to seriously consider constructing a desalination plant in order to provide the city with an alternate source of water during drought years, but Burns sees this as a problem the city will have to deal with regardless of UCSC’s water usage, which is currently about 6 percent of Santa Cruz’s annual overall usage. If the construction on the north campus site were to go forward, that number would likely increase to about 8 percent.

“The city doesn’t have enough water in drought years regardless of the campus,” Burns said. “It’s not as if in drought years the city is short only 6 percent [of its] water. So it’s disingenuous to suggest that university growth should be driving the discussion about whether or not the city has adequate water supplies.”

On top of all this, it’s likely that Santa Cruz will have to further reduce its current water supply in order to conserve the habitat of the Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout, two endangered species that live in the streams from which Santa Cruz obtains the vast majority of its water.

In order to address that issue, LAFCO’s second major condition dictates that the city must complete a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) before moving forward with their application. The HCP would ensure that the streams containing the Coho and Steelhead stay at levels which would prevent any further threat to those species, which would likely mean that Santa Cruz would be able to pull even less water from those streams.

Santa Cruz has been in negotiations with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) for the past 13 years in an attempt to obtain a permit that has many of the same requirements as the HCP, and has yet to meet them. Due to this fact, Leopold is skeptical of the city’s ability to comply with the HCP.

At LAFCO’s June 6 meeting the decision to approve or deny the application was postponed. Two subcommittees were established to investigate the city’s ability to complete an HCP and pursue water neutrality. They are due to report their findings at LAFCO’s upcoming meeting on October 10, when LAFCO will once again vote on the application.

North campus is where the bulk of new additions to UC Santa Cruz would be placed, according to the LRDP. Photo by Sal Ingram.

Closing Arguments

Although it has threatened to withdraw its application if the current terms don’t change, at this point UCSC is still committed to continuing its participation in the LAFCO process.

“We’re still hopeful that this will end reasonably in the not too distant future, and with a fair outcome that doesn’t undercut the substance and spirit of the settlement agreement,” Burns said. “I think that would be a real setback for the community if that happened.”

Burns said while he appreciates the gravity of the concerns surrounding North campus development, he also thinks it’s somewhat arbitrary to decide that UCSC must cease to expand now, in 2012, considering that the campus has been growing ever since it opened in 1963.

He said if UCSC had decided to halt its expansion earlier, many of the students who go here now might not have been able to attend.

Opponents of the North campus development have a different take on the situation.

“I do not believe that this is for greater access to education. I think that’s a terrible lie considering how many lecturers have been fired from this institution, how much has been cut, how tight our classes are, how unaffordable this place is already,” said student activist Nadia Peralta. “There’s so much that needs to be addressed before we could even think about making this a more accessible place that I think it’s pathetic to use greater access to more people in the state as a reason to expand right now.”

While the LAFCO process has been ongoing for the better part of a year without reaching a verdict, many don’t see that as a bad thing.

“We have the luxury of time to get the decision right,” McCormick said. “It’s a public dialogue, and business is being done in the open, not behind closed doors. So if we can keep talking, why not?”

LAFCO commissioner John Leopold is of a similar mind.

“If we’re working to get it right, taking our time is the best thing,” Leopold said. “If we’re just trying to get it done so people stop talking about it, that’s a bad way to make policy. So, don’t be surprised if we don’t finish in October.”