News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

July 4-11, 2007

home | metro santa cruz index | columns | nūz

Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs


Not even change is constant; sometimes it accelerates and begins to rip away at the very fabric of things long considered permanent.

Such is the current case with two of our most longstanding local institutions. First up: the SANTA CRUZ SENTINEL, which rapidly caught up to the times on June 26 when it lost 21 percent of its newsroom employees.

It has been a long journey to this point. An ink-oozing press first began churning out Sentinel broadsheets in 1856 and has continued, without interruption, ever since. The MCPHERSON FAMILY fully owned and firmly ran it, changing its name slightly a few times over its 151 years and modifying its logo a few times more. But after the newspaper arrived in its 54,000-square-foot Church Street home in 1967, it seemed firmly and forever planted.

The changes began slowly. In 1982, OTTAWAY NEWSPAPERS, part of the DOW JONES CORPORATION, convinced the family to sell. The sale, it turns out, occurred just in time for the rather relaxed McPhersons, since both the economics and the politics of local newspapering complexified severely soon after. A series of worldwide paper shortages ran up the price of newsprint 40 percent three times during the '80s, Ottaway repeatedly pressured its local managers to boost profit margins, and the family brand of Republicanism reflected in the paper began grinding noisily against the new university-inspired progressive culture taking root. Those were not necessarily happy years.

Then, in the '90s and the 2000's, came the Internets. All of them. Newsgroups, discussion boards, blogs, free online classified ads. Again, economics tightened. Readership declined, and so did the size of dailies. How much? According to the Newspaper Association of America, 9.4 percent between February 2006 and February 2007.

Ottaway, quickly losing interest in running local dailies, sold the Santa Cruz Sentinel to COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER HOLDINGS in 2006, which in turn sold it to MEDIA NEWS in February of this year. And DOWNSIZING began.

First: the press, which turned dark on May 1, with 33 press workers laid off; the paper is now printed at the San Jose Mercury News facility, which Media News also owns. Next: the building. Media News put the Church Street edifice on the market last month, along with the San Mateo Times building and, most eerily, the classic Tribune Tower in Oakland. And now: newsroom staff. Eight out of 38 Sentinel newsroom employees got their walking papers last week.

It wasn't a surprise--word came down in early June--but what's the forecast? Nūz asked DAVE REGAN, the Sentinel's publisher. "It's a tough time in the business," he offered, but "I don't think that newspapers are in trouble" overall. How about the most basic cost--the price of paper? "That's settled down; it's now around $600 per ton of newsprint, as opposed to the $750 or $800 it was" in the price run-ups of the '80s, so that part of the equation is a bit brighter. Will the Sentinel be moving to another part of the county? "We've been looking at other properties," he says, "but until there are signatures on documents, nothing is final."

Ultimately, Regan is bottom-line philosophical, even about the erosion of newsprint business to online media: "When everybody takes a piece of the pie for their own benefit, we have to keep making changes to benefit ourselves."

And what sort of changes might those be? Since Sentinel editor TOM HONIG will be re-forming the newspaper's daily content around the loss of newsroom staff, Nūz asked him for his perspective.

"Whether newspapers are in freefall or not, habits are changing," Honig observed. "Until a year ago, many newspaper sites were just 'newspapers on the Internet.' Now we're updating the website constantly."

Readers' expectation of immediacy, Honig believes, will also transform how he and Sentinel staff handle news in the future. "My hope is that we can demonstrate at least one area in which coverage is actually improved." What's that? "Context. If something is happening in Capitola, and something similar in Santa Cruz, perhaps that will go into one contextual story rather than appearing as separate items."

What about the downsizing? Is it all about profiteering? "What [Media News' owner] DEAN SINGLETON has done is to find a way to keep newspapers making money by combining newspapers which are geographically next to each other," Honing says. "He loves newspapers. Can they, though, still operate efficiently? There's the rub."

And the loss of staff? "It's sad. There's no way around that. And I can wax nostalgic, but the important thing is not to. I hope to go into the future creating something that surprises people with its quality," he says.

"This is day one."

Sadly for Honig, Day Five brought bad news from over the hill: on July 2, Media News fired 31 newsroom employees at the Merc.

Planning by Kafka

Meanwhile, the COUNTY PLANNING DEPARTMENT--long regarded by both supporters and detractors as a monolith as solid and unshakable as the gray hulking Ocean Street building in which it resides--has also begun to shape-shift. And in large part that's due, once again, to increasing pressure from competing external forces.

This particular shift, however, is not one of your mama's classic 1978 Measure J–related rumpuses between pro-growthers and slow-growthers. This is, rather, a battle between STIPULATORS and SIMPLIFIERS.

For nearly three decades, stipulators ruled the day, taking the stance that anything that can be specified must be specified.

As a result, county planning code has slowly grown in size and mass until it's come to resemble the Winchester Mystery House--here a stairway to nowhere, there a window facing a blank wall, and on top a cantilevered section, unbalanced by anything on the opposite side, which threatens to topple the entire structure. Over time, the whole thing has become so cattywompus that frustrated residents have run out and refused to return.

Or, as county planning director TOM BURNS more discreetly put it in a June 19 letter to the Board of Supes, "Such situations lead the public to question the value of the County's land-use regulations and reflect poorly on the County in general. Additionally, such frustration can lead to property owners proceeding with the work outside of the permit process."

And work outside the process they indeed have--including an embarrassed county building inspector found constructing an illegal retaining wall a few years ago, who explained that he "didn't want to deal with the planning department." And the Planning Department's head code enforcement hearing officer, who left after a neighbor reported her son's illegally converting a shed to a residence. As well as somewhere between 1,500 and 6,000 residents who have received red tags, depending on the year in question.

Pressure to simplify has been mounting for some time, with most of the ire directed at the planning department. The difficulty, however, has never been the department, but the BOARD OF SUPERVISORS' continual additions to the county code, often under the aegis of "emergency ordinances"--rules demanding a supermajority of votes but exempt from prior public notice. Supervisors have so often personally interfered with planning decisions that the County Grand Jury dedicated an entire segment in its 2002–03 annual report to "Obstacles to the Orderly Operation of the Santa Cruz County Planning Department," of which supervisorial interference was the headline act.

Supervisors, apparently aware of both their complicity and agency, have responded by repeatedly running for office promising reform. JAN BEAUTZ originally ran on that platform, and then abandoned the effort. MARDI WORMHOUDT, running in a tough re-election race in 2004, joined with JEFF ALMQUIST to sponsor a reform effort. It, like many electoral promises, disappeared soon thereafter.

So, as with many land-use policies, it fell to those acting at the state level to require simplifications. And they did.

In 1999, State Senator Richard Alarcon's SB 948 tightened up delays on affordable housing project applications. In 2002, Assemblyman Joe Dunn succeeded in prohibiting localities from demanding public hearings for small backyard second units in neighborhoods in which they were already permitted.

And while all the lawmaking was going on, STEVEN TRAVIS, a San Lorenzo Valley architect, took the county to court and won a narrow victory at the CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT, which declared that the county's habit of demanding that it "review" tenants who wanted to live in second units was vaguely unconstitutional.

And so it came to pass that county planning director Tom Burns, who's a very smart man, sat down his staff, ran some simplifications of county code up the flagpole, took some suggestions, wrote it all up, and approached the Board of Supervisors on June 19, saying that it's time to simplify.

The upshot? "Even minor residential projects ... an owner wishing to build an art studio; a family that wants to add a room to an older home that does not conform to current height requirements; or a resident needing to add a minor addition on their home adjacent to farmland ... oftentimes run into significant regulatory hurdles and extensive process issues." And that, again, leads to unpermitted building, which can be far more dangerous to safety than giving up a bit of oversight.

So what are these changes? There are actually 22 of them, each offering its own history and complexity, and Nūz will run over those that affect the most people--in some cases, tens of thousands of county residents, especially tenants--in a future episode.

For now, suffice it to say that Tom Burns has done it yet again, somehow simplifying without at all weakening growth control.

Stay tuned.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.