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05.21.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Rotkin finesses cell tower restriction law, treesitters advertise for replacements and county loses two affordable housing parcels but gets a bigger one suitable for more units.

Hard Cell

Santa Cruz City Councilman Mike Rotkin has spent countless hours reading up on the health dangers of microwave radiation from cell phone towers, and now he wants to ban any more of the shiny phallic objects from being erected within city limits. Trouble is, he can't do this without breaking federal law. So Rotkin is gearing up for some good ol' fashioned political maneuvering. Here's the backstory. The federal government has done its best to make sure no one in Rotkin's lowly position has the power to block cell tower construction due to concerns that it might screw up the insides of nearby residents. That pretty much leaves Rotkin and other local government leaders with only two arguments for regulating where cell phone towers go: they're ugly as all hell and they're incompatible with zoning laws.

So, with his hands tied on an all-out ban, Rotkin is leading the charge to impose regulations on the towers based on aesthetic and zoning grounds. Specifically, he wants the city's Planning Commission to look into cooking up an ordinance that would prohibit cell towers from being erected within 1,000 feet of a public elementary school. The official line would be that cell towers and schools are incompatible uses and "neighborhood character" is altered when a tower is put so close to a school, but make no mistake, for Rotkin this is all about the potential health effects of the towers.

"I've read several books and hundreds of articles on this subject, and none of them have been completely decisive. I should make that clear. However, many of them have said there could potentially be health impacts, especially on children," says Rotkin. "I think we should follow the precautionary principle in this case because there is at least some evidence that the health effects could be real."

Rotkin's effort follows other regulations around the county limiting where cell phone companies can build their towers. In Watsonville, they have to be located at least twice their height from the property line of a house or school. In the unincorporated areas of the county, cell towers are prohibited on school grounds but not in the surrounding area.

Wary as he may be of the possibility that wireless signals are polluting the bodies of his constituents, Rotkin has also been on the council long enough to know how to tango with the feds without getting his feet stepped on. So he made sure to draw up his recommendations for the setbacks in such a way that some cell towers would still be allowed within the city limits. He was also careful to direct the Planning Commission not to mention anything even remotely resembling wireless radiation, deadly electromagnetic fields or cancer in the ordinance or accompanying staff reports.

"If we start looking into how healthy or unhealthy cell towers are and start making findings to that effect, we'll be painting a big bulls-eye on Santa Cruz for the federal government saying, 'Come get us! We're doing something you told us we can't do!'" exclaims Rotkin. "So, I tried to be responsible and allow some possibility for placing cell towers within the city limits." Nūz will be donning a tin foil hat until the ordinance hits the books.

Due to Lack of Interest

The tree sitters who ascended the trees in the Science Hill Parking Lot six months ago in protest of university development are advertising for new blood.

The advertisement, on the Santa Cruz Indymedia website, is encouraging "upstairs guests" to join them for the summer months. They say they need to fortify their ranks when students leave campus for summer vacation, a period which they say is "historically a season when the UC takes advantage of the nearly empty campus and fewer watchful guardians to carry out their largest ecocidal acts."

We were curious about what qualifications, besides being zealously opposed to the Long-Range Development Plan, are required for joining the high-altitude protest. So we visited Owl, a tree sitter with whom we've spoken in the past, to learn more. When we tried to reach him at his perch, the only other tree sitter in sight informed us that Owl had, disappointingly, flown away for a few weeks.

The sitter that we spoke with wasn't willing to field our questions about how what the position entails or how many are open. He just stared at us from the treetop until we left.

The advertisement says the perks of helping to fill the temporary vacancy include the satisfaction of being politically active and living in a place with a great view. The advertisement failed to mention that the job does carry the occupational risk of being arrested by law enforcement officers as well as the chance that clumsy candidates might meet a hideous death at the bottom of a precipitous drop, but those are obvious risks.

Before the advertisement was uploaded, we asked one of the sitters (there were allegedly at one time "four or five") what living in a tree was like, and he responded that it was better than any job. Of course, putting "Tree Guardian" on a résumé might not appeal to some employers, but if you're the right candidate, the benefits should take priority over building a traditional résumé, getting paid or having a retirement plan.

The tree sitters are protesting not only development but also a pile of issues ranging from watershed maintenance to animal testing. If you want to learn more about those issues or if you'd like to join them, then just yell at them from the Science Hill Parking Lot, which the sitters once called the Autonomous Zone but now call Makserehah, which they say is the more correct Native American name.

We All Scream

State Sen. Joe Simitian is proving himself a man of the people by buying us all ice cream using his own money and giving us a chance to complain to him--even people who didn't vote for him--during his Fourth Annual Ice Cream Social and Open House on Thursday, May 22. It's a time for constituents to tell the senator their problems in a disarming atmosphere while downing pounds of frozen dairy products. All the classic flavors like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry will be at the event, plus newer flavors from Marianne's like the exotic northern Oregon blackberry and cinnamon caramel, which strikes Nūz as an unfortunate combination of flavors, but it's the senator's favorite, and he's buying the ice cream.

Simitian hosts his Fourth Annual Ice Cream Social and Open House on Thursday, May 22, 4-6pm at his Santa Cruz District Office, 701 Ocean St., Room 318A, Santa Cruz.

Sunspeak

With Memorial Day just around the bend, the sun will once again be spending a good deal of its day hanging out in the Santa Cruz sky. If city officials have their way, sunbathers won't be the only ones soaking up the rays this year. Santa Cruz Climate Change Coordinator Ross Clark is getting the city ready for a huge push toward using the generous helping of sun rays our region receives to help power Santa Cruz and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Before that costly transition can happen, however, he needs to make sure everyone--from big-time developers to fixed-income retirees--is on the same page.

Capturing solar energy is a fantastic idea on paper, since the stuff is literally pouring down from the heavens. The path to solar energy becomes thorny, however, when the issue of how to pay for the initial investment in the technology crops up. Clark and other city officials want to find out how to jump this obstacle in a way that the public would support. Ideas collected so far include working with local banks to create a "Green Investment fund," subsidizing solar installation using city funds that would be paid back by participating property owners over time, leasing solar panels like one would a car and using localized carbon offsets to create a fund for solar installation.

Ross isn't ready to implement any of these ideas quite yet, but with the city promising to reduce heat-trapping emissions 30 percent by 2020, there is little time to spare.

"For the near future, solar is going to be an important part of our overall reduction strategy," says Ross. "Still, these are all ideas, none of them have been completely worked out. Before investing a lot of time in focusing on one idea and moving forward, we want to hear from the public on what appeals to them."

Solar Santa Cruz will be meeting Wednesday, May 28, 6:30-8:30pm in Room 13 of the Louden Nelson Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. More info at www.30X20.org.

Land for Peace

Santa Cruz County's plan to rezone 30 acres to make way for higher-density and affordable housing has taken several steps forward in the last two months, courtesy of a land swap that trades two smaller, complicated sites for a single larger one accommodating more units.

Out: a site on Porter Gulch (known, after its owner's name, as the Atlee site) that had ostensibly offered 3.8 acres for housing but actually contained far less developable area due to steep slopes. Also out: a Seventh Avenue site near Eaton owned by Joe Ritchey, who had sued the county over the entire rezoning scheme. Ritchey and the county eventually settled, but in the process, building on the 3.1 acres had "gotten so convoluted" that it proved inefficient to proceed, according to county Planning director Tom Burns.

In: the site of the former Poor Clares nunnery on State Park Drive. The Poor Clares, an order of religious women who depend on community support and spend their lives in prayer, had lived at the Rispin Mansion in Capitola until they moved to the Seacliff property in 1959. In 1989, they moved to Corralitos and sold the property. Dominican Hospital eventually acquired it and insisted on keeping the site off potential housing lists for its own development purposes.

Last year, however, Dominican changed its mind and decided to sell the site to beef up funds for improvements to its main facility on Soquel Drive, and the property again went on the market. After a brief flirtation with Clarum Homes, which dropped out of the bidding, Dominican again put the property on the market. And, says Planning director Burns, "There's now a developer interested in working with us" on developing up to 80 housing units--plus perhaps a hotel, for which the site is primarily zoned. The developer is particularly interested in seniors-only units, which will also meet state demands for rezoned sites, "as long as they're income-eligible units."

This is quite a turnaround for the Poor Clares parcel, which District 2 Supervisor Ellen Pirie had suggested numerous times as a replacement for the larger, disputed former golf course Par 3 site a few blocks away on the other side of State Park Drive. Consideration for rezoning that parcel had broken into heated controversy, with the Aptos Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood traffic-watchers teaming up on one side and housing advocates and community service group COPA on the other.

In the meantime, a South County site on Minto Road near Watsonville has passed final rezoning before the Board of Supervisors, and semifinal arrangements are in the works with Brooks Properties, proponent of the 40-plus Aptos Cottages project across Soquel Drive from Rancho Del Mar shopping center.

Between the three sites, several hundred affordable housing units appear to be, after many reconfigurations, on their way.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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