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03.26.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Betty Danner's law-and-order campaign for supervisor; Supervisor Ellen Pirie tries to salvage road repair funding from the wreckage of the transportation tax and a San Diego lawmaker takes aim at the Coastal Commission.

The Danner Party

The clinking of wine glasses and an enthusiastic cheering section greeted District 1 supervisorial candidate Betty Danner at her humble Soquel Drive campaign office last Tuesday, March 18. The assembled crowd of 50 included an impressive list of local luminaries, notably current District 1 Supervisor Jan Beautz and former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. In terms of endorsements it might not get better than those two, but Danner has already attracted star power to spare as she gears up for the June 3 election, when she'll have to fend off five other candidates for the honor of representing Live Oak on the Board of Supervisors.

Danner's backers come mostly from the law enforcement community, hardly a shock given her background as executive director of the Santa Cruz Criminal Justice Council. Sheriff Steve Robbins and Santa Cruz County Superior Court judges Paul Marigonda and Paul Burdick have all thrown their weight behind Danner, who has promised to curb rising crime in Live Oak.

"You only have to look at the newspapers to see how bad the crime has gotten around here," Danner told the crowded room. "My first priority will be to reduce the influence of gangs."

Gangs have been quietly spreading through Live Oak for years, but locals got a shock on Jan. 29 when a bicyclist was shot to death in the middle of 17th Avenue rush hour traffic by suspected gang members. Tensions worsened when Soquel High basketball MVP Daniel Cross was shot twice in the leg in a March 15 drive-by on Thurber Lane. Police reports allege Cross and two of his friends had been involved minutes earlier in an afternoon altercation at Soquel Village involving two gangs, although it is unclear if Cross had taken sides in the fight.

Danner, widow of the late District Attorney Art Danner, has promised to funnel more county resources toward the sheriff's office to begin combating gang activity. Since Live Oak is unincorporated, it has no city police force, which leaves only two deputies from the thinly stretched sheriff's office to patrol an area of 25,000 residents (although during some evening hours as many as four deputies are on the prowl).

Danner's promise to fund more deputy positions clinched the support of Sheriff Robbins, who helped Beautz and McPherson welcome Danner to the crowd. Robbins made clear the scope of the funding shortfall.

"If Live Oak were incorporated, it would be the third-largest city in the county," he said. "There are simply not enough resources for the sheriff's office to provide the level of service Live Oak residents deserve."

Danner didn't limit her campaign promises to fighting back against rampant gang activity. She also stressed her commitment to "preserving our neighborhoods," or, stated more directly, denying high-density housing in the district unless "all the neighbors were supportive." Supervisor Beautz and a chorus of residents have long complained that new housing developments are unfairly shoved into Live Oak because of county laws restricting growth in rural areas. Beautz and other residents also claim that county services, such as law enforcement, rarely follow the stream of new residents the housing developments bring.

Danner will also follow in Beautz's footsteps when it comes to fighting for Highway 1 widening and protecting rent control laws. She also promised to strongly enforce environmental laws and ensure "economic vitality," especially in the East Cliff Village Shopping Mall.

Scraps Accepted Here

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ellen Pirie is doing her best salvage yard operator impersonation as she attempts to save some portion of the sales tax measure that was crushed between clashing transportation activists last month. The original half-cent sales tax increase, officially pronounced dead by the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) on Feb. 7, would have lasted 35 years and raised $600 million for train service, Highway 1 widening, expanded bus service and local road repair. Pirie, with the support of other supes, is now attempting to isolate the issue of fixing up pothole-ridden local roads in hopes that there is still time to put something, anything, before voters on the November 2008 ballot.

This process took a baby step forward at the March 18 Supervisors meeting, when the board voted unanimously to pay San Francisco market research firm Gene Bregman & Associates up to $30,000 to conduct a poll on how the $2 million to $8 million a year needed to spruce up county roads might be raised. Options include increasing the countywide sales tax, imposing a utility tax in unincorporated areas, increasing the business license tax or increasing property taxes. How long a tax would be imposed has yet to be determined.

And depending on the poll results, the county might just give up. This is a very real option, considering a recession is looming and food and fuel prices are going through the roof.

Pirie says that in her heart of hearts, she'd really like to get moving on some of the bigger transportation projects the county needs to relieve congestion, but she knows that once the word "highway" or "train" is uttered, the ideological trench war will flare up again. So she decided to isolate the one area that benefits both traditional and alternative transit advocates.

"Regardless of what your preferred method of transit is--by car, bus, bike or foot--we all need the roads," says Pirie. "So it was something that seemed to me not to be divisive, but something that everybody recognized was a problem that we didn't have money to deal with."

Of course Pirie is also more than happy to score a few points with voters in the unincorporated areas, many of whom have been pestering her for years to put their tax money toward something that actually benefits them.

"Many people have a limited amount of interaction with local government, but one of the things they see from local government is the roads. We have people in our county paying an enormous amount of property tax--and even though only 13 percent of that stays local, they are still paying $1,000 a month in property taxes," notes Pirie. "So these people are sitting there thinking, 'I pay $1,000 a month, I don't use any county services to speak of. Why am I paying this money? The roads are still horrible to drive over.'"

For now, Pirie will have to be content with hoping for favorable poll results so a tax measure can be readied for the November ballot by the Aug. 8 deadline. As far as the future of meaningful transportation investment, Pirie sees a much bleaker outlook.

"It's very discouraging that there are groups that are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face," she says sternly in a thinly veiled jab at opponents of highway widening. "Even those groups that would have stood to gain things they care about are more interested in preventing others from having the things that are important to them. So as long as that is a prevalent attitude, we're going to have a problem."

Going Coastal

Every month members of the California Coastal Commission convene to play Mom and Dad to small-time politicians up and down California's coast. Commissioners chide city councilmembers, county supervisors and other local planning officials when they run afoul of the 1976 Coastal Act and give them a nice pat on the back when they do good by the commission's interpretation of the law. But now, a rebellious lawmaker from Southern California is railing against this authority as unnecessarily costly and time-consuming, sparking fears from local environmentalists that the commission could lose many of its oversight privileges.

State Sen. Denise Ducheny, the Democratic representative of a fast-growing district near San Diego, has introduced legislation that would drastically alter the process by which the influential Coastal Commission decides which projects to review at its monthly meetings. As it stands now, items that end up on the commission's agenda are mostly the result of appeals. That basic fact won't change, but who can make the appeals will be tweaked if Ducheny's bill prevails. Currently a project applicant, concerned resident or a partnership of two commissioners can submit a project for review. Ducheny thinks it's awfully suspicious that the commissioners who would hear an appeal are also the ones making the appeal, and she wants that practice to stop.

Her bill, S.B. 1295, would disallow commissioners from initiating appeals, leaving this authority solely with the developer or someone who's previously expressed concern at a local planning commission or city council meeting. Ducheny argues that these meddlesome commissioners too often blast to bits hard-fought compromises reached at the local level. Ducheny reasons that if only "aggrieved" locals or the affected developer can appeal local decisions, all the arguments over fresh coastal developments--be they hotels, new roads or beachfront luxury homes--will be kept within the affected community. This doesn't sit well with local environmental watchdog and former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton. With coastal development permits flying through planning commissions up and down the state like so much confetti, Patton doubts citizen watchdogs can realistically keep up with them.

"The problem with her bill from my perspective, and I think the commission's perspective, is that most local government actions would be completely unsupervised," says Patton. "There are these statewide policies that are supposed to be followed. So how does the commission make sure these policies are actually being followed? They need to have some way to bring things before them and not just rely hit and miss on citizen efforts, which frankly there aren't many of."

It may not seem like the end of the world if a decision made at the local level is able to dodge review from the Coastal Commission due to Ducheny's bill. But Patton reminds Nūz that the Coastal Act contains many important legal nuances. In addition to hearing appeals, the Coastal Commission derives its power from approving Local Coastal Plans, which ensure the Coastal Act is followed when local land use decisions are made. In fact, over 95 percent of "coastal zone" projects approved or denied at the local level never even make it to the commission, thanks to the guidelines set down in these local plans. For that other 5 percent, the ability of commissioners to appeal is critical, argues Patton.

"The problem is, these projects set precedents. Oftentimes no 'aggrieved person' is following a project that could set a precedent for how a local coastal plan is interpreted, except for Coastal Commission members and their staff," argues Patton. "The commissioners pull a project for appeal if they believe the commission will find the local government did something wrong. It's a mechanism to fine-tune the process. Sometimes local governments make mistakes."

Coastal Commission figures from the Central Coast District, which includes Santa Cruz, seem to suggest that Ducheny's presentation of commissioners as overbearing outsiders who ignore local autonomy are at least a little bit overblown. In 2007, there were 272 appealable projects approved in the Central Coast District. Only 12 of those projects were put on the agenda by commissioners due to appeal and, of those, only four decisions overruled local decisions.

Lucky for proponents of a strong Coastal Commission, S.B. 1295 is still caught up in the Senate's Natural Resources Committee, where it was scheduled as of presstime to be discussed on March 25.


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