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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Architects and county planners struggle over neighborhood compatibility rules; the 27th District Assembly race begins in earnest.

Never-Ending Story

Head-butting between architects and planning officials is a timeless phenomenon, so it's hardly to be expected that a single court decision could end it. However, Santa Cruz architect Cove Britton hopes his recent victory in a lawsuit against the county can start a process of reconciliation, even as others familiar with the debate question the soundness of his suggestions.

Britton won a lawsuit against Santa Cruz County in January arguing that a brochure on Neighborhood Compatibility guidelines the department had been circulating was illegally approved by the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors approved the brochure in March 2007, believing the document's suggestions on designing everything from garages to landscaping with an eye toward preserving neighborhood character would help prevent blocked views and neighborhood eyesores. Yet it turns out county law requires the brochure to be approved by the Planning Commission first.

Time for a bit of history. Way back in 2003, the commission actually did review the brochure, but ended up voting against it. The commissioners' concerns mostly revolved around ambiguous language regarding which zoning areas the brochures would apply to, and whether or not the brochures would be legally binding. It was quickly clarified by planning staff that the brochures were not legally binding, and would only apply to houses in coastal special communities, such as Davenport, Rio Del Mar and Pleasure Point, or those over 7,000 square feet. Commissioners asked planning staff to clarify these points and then bring the brochure back to them.

The problem is planning staff never resubmitted the brochure to the commission before sending it to the supervisors, which Superior Court Judge Robert Atack deemed to be in clear violation of county law.

The end result of this little hiccup in due process is that the neighborhood compatibility brochure will be taken out of circulation until it goes through the right channels. That might not be good enough for Britton. While he used the due process argument as an easy way to strike down the brochures, his real concern was that the brochure went beyond the scope of the neighborhood compatibility ordinance codified in section 13.11 of the county code.

For instance, the brochure provides suggestions on designing garage doors to be compatible with those on surrounding houses, but garage doors are not regulated in the neighborhood compatibility code. This may seem to be the height of nitpicking, but according to Britton, planners at the desk would routinely use the brochure instead of the ordinance language itself as a guide when considering project applications. A call to Planning director Tom Burns went unanswered by presstime.

One less brochure at Planning may not rattle too many nerves, but the lawsuit throws light on a much larger problem—namely, the aforementioned headbutting between local architects and planners. Britton hopes his success in the lawsuit can change that by becoming a rallying point for better communication.

His plan is to work with former Planning director Kay Bowden Archer to create a proposal for a technical advisory committee (TAC) made up of architects, engineers and land-use lawyers.

The TAC would advise the Planning Commission and supervisors when changes to the building code were being considered. The committee wouldn't have any binding powers, but could hopefully iron out disagreements between planners and architects early in the process. The TAC would also be available to give free advice to inexperienced home owners hoping to perform construction on their homes.

"It should solve a lot of problems ahead of time," says Britton. So far, the TAC plan is in its early stages, but Britton did pitch the idea to the offices of Supervisors Coonerty, Stone and Campos. "They were cautious," he says. "It's definitely something they'll want to see."

Stone is not ready to give a final judgment on Britton's proposal, but says he'd like to see any committee that does get formed be made up of other stakeholders, not just building professionals.

"In general, I think the more public input we can have on our projects the better off we are," he says, adding, "From what I've seen there has been ample opportunity for people to be involved. If this is not true, that's a process issue that needs to be addressed. We as government are representing everybody, not just one sector or another. So if we do put something in place. ... I'm not sure what the best makeup of that group would be."

Supervisors Beautz and Pirie will be consulted in the near future and within the next few weeks a draft plan should be ready for review by the Planning Department, interested building professionals and county supes.

Assembly Contest Begins

As Caesar would say, "Let the games begin!"

California voters gave the old thumbs-down to Proposition 93 on Feb. 5, forcing District 27 Assemblyman John Laird out of office next January and unleashing a flurry of activity among the political contenders hoping to win his seat. They've been sitting on the sidelines for months, waiting for the fate of Prop. 93 to be determined. After all, most of the candidates were reluctant to challenge the widely popular Laird in any way.

But now, with Laird—or at least a law extending his tenure in Sacramento—having been kicked to the curb, there's nothing holding the ambitious candidates back. The gates have been raised, and the gladiators are rushing into the arena.

With only four months left until the June primary, the candidate's bankrolls tell a story. Monterey Bay Conservancy founder Douglas Deitch, who will focus on solving saltwater intrusion into the Pajaro Valley aquifer if elected, is not asking for monetary contributions, so it's hard to say how much he'll be spending. Meanwhile, Monterey-based chiropractor Stephen Barkalow, who would focus his efforts on hammering out a universal health-care plan if elected, has $15,632 in the bank. That's after he spent $6,777 of the $22,409 he made in the second half of last year.

Barkalow got his campaign off the ground late last year, so he's a little behind in fundraising when compared to the three frontrunners.

Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) activist Barbara Sprenger made a hefty $50,946 in the second half of last year. Of that, she spent just over $8,500, leaving $101,169 in the bank when combined with the money she raised during the first half of 2007. As of now, her war chest is the largest.

Monterey-based lawyer and labor activist Bill Monning comes in second with $66,499 in the bank. In all of 2007, Monning raked in $100,275 and spent $38,766. Most of that money came in during an energetic bout of fundraising in the last half of the year that netted $76,645.

Coming in at a close third is former Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly, who is hoping to win the environmental vote. She made $49,912 in the second half of last year, while spending $27,701. She has $61,648 left in the bank.

The financial picture is sure to shift as businesses, developers and unions begin throwing their weight behind candidates in the coming weeks.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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