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News Briefs

Middle Ground

Pedestrians in Santa Cruz have claimed a victory. A hotly contested alleyway linking Mission Plaza with the High Street cul-de-sac will remain open to foot and bike traffic between the hours of at least 6am and 10pm. The court-arbitrated compromise marks the end of three-year struggle with absentee property owner John Mahony on one side and neighbors supported by bike/pedestrian group People Power on the other.

The alley is less than a quarter mile long, but it's been the site of serious neighborhood drama. In 2007, citing theft to his rentals adjoining the walkway, Mahony bought the path and its property rights from Holy Cross Catholic Church and immediately boarded it up against public access. Residents soon called for help from nonmotorized transit advocates People Power. Neighbors and activists tore down fences constructed at the entrance and exit after no more than a few days, arguing that after at least 80 years of use the alley should be considered a public easement. Attorney Gary Redenbacher was persuaded to work on the neighbors' behalf for a discounted fee. The barriers were called a public nuisance; Redenbacher and People Power president Micah Posner held that this argument gave the public a legal right to remove them.

"We knew that we had a good case, and the law was on our side," says Posner, citing a law that protects paths in use before 1975. "We were in no hurry." Landlord John Mahoney was unable to be reached for comment.

"All of us who lived there had never experienced any problems with [the walkway]," says Judy Ziegler, who led the initial neighborhood movement. "It's part of the historical heart of the town, where the nuns walked on the way to the convent at the church." Posner says having the alley open makes walking an easier choice, encouraging community building and alleviating traffic congestion at nearby Holy Cross Elementary School.

—Kate Jacobson

Fertilizer Neutralizer

If a group of farmers test the runoff in their fields for nitrates but the results are confidential, has the public good been served? This was one of the questions underlying debate at the July 8 meeting of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in Watsonville.

At issue is a proposed law that would require all growers from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara to monitor the runoff from their fields for chemical contamination that would make water harmful for drinking, swimming and other human activities. The issue of whether those tests should be confidential was a flashpoint. The California Farm Bureau commended a current waiver that supports "confidential and voluntary'' water quality testing, which allows several growers to test and report cooperatively, or in groups, rather than individually.

"Confidentiality is a very positive incentive because you realize the possibility to make improvements without a hammer over your head," said one farmer. Another grower with both organic and conventional acreage said confidential testing had enabled him to comply without fear of repercussions.

But activists are leery of extending that proposal in the new law. Steve Shimek of Monterey Coastkeeper suggested possible compromises that could be added to the draft to appease farmers, saying that perhaps their tests could remain confidential for the first two years. He also proposed a tiered approach that would allow those dischargers not in "hot spots" to continue to test cooperatively. But he remained opposed to allowing all growers to test cooperatively, saying they must be held responsible. "The most profitable land is the most impaired," he said.

Among those who came to voice their support for the new rule were residents of San Jerardo, a community outside Salinas that has suffered serious health problems from drinking contaminated water. Human health carried the most weight in the board's considerations.

"Our highest priority is those impacts to human health. Those require short-term action," said Water Board member Monica Hunter in her closing remarks. "We have an increasingly urgent problem that needs to be addressed. We can no longer marginalize these issues."

The staff closed by pointing out that timber, landfills and wastewater treatment plants adhere to strict regulations, while agriculture hasn't been held to the same standards. "It is our aim to bring agriculture into similar compliance as those dischargers with a high degree of water quality impact," said Water Board staff member Lisa McCain.

—Maria Grusauskas

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