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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Land-Rich, House-Poor: Cathy Puccinelli, right, would like her daughter Heather Gardner and grandkids Claire and Jackson Gardner to move onto her seven-acre Golf Club Drive property, but current development restrictions prevent it.

The Tightening of the Santa Cruz Greenbelt

An all-or-nothing plan for development puts Pogonip's neighbors in a bind.

By Michelle Camerlingo

IN THE CRISP light of a spring day, Cathy Puccinelli stands quietly, her eyes taking in the land that has been in her family for more than 100 years. The echo of flowing water from the adjacent Pogonip Creek is a perfect backdrop for the sprawling seven-acre property, made up of a cottagelike farmhouse with a well-kept yard and a large organic farming field.

Puccinelli says the land hasn't changed much since her Italian immigrant grandparents bought it in 1900 to farm. "But no one wanted it then," she says. "It was right next to the tannery, so it smelled of blood and hide."

It's hard to believe the congested streets surrounding the yards of Harvey West are so close. But the historic trestle down the street marks a scenic shift from industrious to idyllic. Serving as the gateway to the trails of Pogonip, the lone street houses four properties on its surrounding 20 acres. The area is bound by Harvey West to the south, the railroad to the east and Pogonip to the north and west. It holds a wildlife habitat, riparian wetlands and, according to the California Department of Conservation, some of the most fertile soil in the northern part of the state--soil that's been no stranger to agriculture. Golf Club Drive has been an incubator for many local organic farms.

"I really pushed the organic farming in the area, and I'm proud of that," Puccinelli says of leasing her land to local farmers. The now-defunct Santa Cruz Farms got its start on Puccinelli's plot, seeing its first seedlings thrive in the 1980s. From there Blue Heron Farms, now based in Watsonville, got its name from the tall, long-necked birds that often fly in to eat mice and gophers. Dirty Girl Produce's famous dry-farmed tomatoes were born in the street's morning sunlight. Most farmers that have tilled Golf Club Drive's grounds went on to start their own farms and organic endeavors. "Jim Denevan of Gabriella's used to shovel manure--poop--here," says Puccinelli with a nostalgic laugh.

But now the bare field lays fallow, and the scenarios Puccinelli describes haven't taken place for the last couple of years. The last time Puccinelli's plot was farmed was 2007, and while she says there have been calls about leasing it for agriculture she has held off--offering a vague explanation: "It makes people too emotional."

Puccinelli is on the verge of getting some relief from a situation that has plagued her for years. She says that while she and her neighbors don't want to see any drastic change to the area, without changes to the general plan their quality of life at home will continue to be hindered by tight restrictions on development. For example, Puccinelli usually bathes in her outdoor shower--she can't add on a newer one inside or make any renovations without permits, and permits for this area are unusually hard to get. "My neighbors have been red-tagged for building without permits, paying large fines just for trying to improve their properties," she says.

Weighing heaviest on Puccinelli's heart is that she can't build an adjoining home for her daughter, something she wants to do in order to keep the property in her family. As of now, Puccinelli's daughter and grandchildren are moving three hours away for more affordable housing."The bureaucracy is too slow," Puccinelli says. "This should have been addressed already, and now my family has to leave."

Now it is being addressed, but the all-or-nothing nature of the proposed solution leaves Puccinelli in a Catch-22. Last summer the planning commission approved recommendations for the updated general plan that would ease the restrictions on development of the Golf Club Drive area, and not just for current residents wishing to add a bathroom. The changes would open the door to more than 200 residential units where there are currently four. The decision will go to city council pending completion of the Environmental Impact Report, possibly at the end of this year.

Pogonip Estates
John Swift, a tall and enigmatic land developer, owns the property at the top of Golf Club Drive, adjacent to Pogonip. He and partner Dave Currie bought the six acres in 2001 with designs on development. So when the planning commission approved the very recommendations he was hoping for, Swift was more than satisfied.

"Nothing is set in stone. [The recommendations] allow to plan for the future. This area is a special place," Swift says. Swift's development consultant company, Hamilton-Swift, has been involved with many projects in Santa Cruz, like Costco and Big Creek Lumber, as well as commercial and residential developments in Live Oak and the Seabright area. Currie helped create the new condos off Western and Empire Grade.

Swift says Golf Club Drive is a prime location for housing and not viable for commercial farming. "It's already residentially zoned, and a higher density would allow a chance for affordable housing," he says.

Over time, Golf Club Drive has seen a gradual shift from agricultural to denser residential zoning, yet the 20 acres have stayed virtually the same. This is a result of two factors: Strict policies in the current General Plan keep the area from sprouting development and preserve acreage for agriculture through open space. And more simply, the property owners haven't wanted to change it.

But Swift, who used to work for the city planning department, sees a smooth transition from rural land to city in what he describes as a vibrant mixed residential neighborhood--made up of single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums and possibly a commons area or plaza. "I picture it like the Seabright area," he says. "People didn't want to build there at first, but I think it's been successful."

While the four property owners are neighborly and share mutual respect, there is a sense of separation--evident in letters sent to the planning commission after the recommendations were passed--between the owners with roots in the land (who are mostly retired) and Swift and Currie, who do not live there.

Nevertheless, they all have a stake in land-use designation changes to the General Plan, though driven by different motives--the developers want to develop and the longtime residents want to be able to make modifications to their properties.

Since the enactment of the current general plan, the restrictions on development have been so firm that to make additions, build an extra unit or make a minor land division on their own acreages, they've had to produce a detailed plan for the entire 20 acres. Puccinelli says this has weighed hard on the families that live on Golf Club Drive, so any support the commission gave was something.

"To improve my home, I've been tied to my neighbors, like in an arranged marriage. And I don't have the money to come up with the kind of plan the city asks for. We shouldn't be asked to do that," she says. "Coming together we hoped would make our case stronger. But now, I don't want to be tied to anyone. I just want to do what everyone else can do in the city of Santa Cruz."

The proposed recommendations would keep them tied, however. Should one want to develop at a higher density--as Swift and Currie do--all the properties would have to participate in the planning of the area.

Pucinelli says, "I don't want the area to drastically change, I'm pretty sure none of us do." She sighs. "But we do want our freedom, and this is the best the city could come up with."

Vacant Lots Like Gold
Mark Primack, Santa Cruz's smart-growth golden-boy, says, "Ideally, the proper and sustainable solution is for Golf Club Drive to remain agricultural and rural. Nobody wants to see it built."

During the last General Plan process, large rural lots like Golf Club Drive were given higher densities yet saddled with strict stipulations involving development in an attempt to satisfy state density certification requirements (which rake in funding) and preserve small-town charm, according to Primack.

"The reality of the situation is 30 years of insincere planning. The land has sat as a hostage for bad planning. The question then becomes, 'What is the right thing to do?'" he says. "The best and right thing for the city would be to put efforts to transfer the density [that is designated for Golf Club Drive] along the river and downtown, where you want people to be."

Primack envisions a city modeled after towns in Tuscany, where residents cluster near places of work to preserve rural and natural landscapes. "Leave [Golf Club Drive] agricultural. If the city isn't capable of doing that, they should admit it and should be very clear on how it gets developed," he says.

Primack says that holding the property owners in charge of planning for development of the area is a denial of responsibility on the city's part. "If they want to leave it in John Swift's hands. ... But one would hope the city has broader perspectives," he says.

It would be remiss not to say it wasn't hard to sway the planning commission to increase the density and relax restrictions on development. In a city that has almost been built to capacity--at 58,000 now, and with a projected 63,000 in 2030--Golf Club Drive marks one of only two large undeveloped spaces left in Santa Cruz. Ken Thomas, Santa Cruz principal planner, says, "Residentially zoned land is scarce in this city, and it's important to make the most of it."

Thomas says Primack's idea of transferring density is one of many options viable for Golf Club Drive--but those options, he says, are more complicated, and while Golf Club Drive has been historically used for farming, there is enough agriculturally zoned land within the county. "We are blessed for having a lot of land outside the city that is agriculturally zoned," he says.

Even though the area is not on a major transportation corridor or at the core of the city--where the updated General Plan stresses higher-density projects--Thomas says its proximity to a major employment center, i.e., Harvey West, is what makes it an exception to the rule. "Transportation corridors are a goal," Thomas says, "but it's rare that you have a vacant lot to build housing on."

No Going Back
At the Live Oak Farmers Market, Ronald Donkervoort's red shirt looks dull in comparison to his ruby-hued strawberries. As he greets families by name while bagging spinach and elephant kale, it's obvious that he loves what he does--providing fresh food for the community. But for him and other local farmers, seeing ag land lost to development is a sensitive issue, and Golf Club Drive is no exception.

Farmers near cities like Santa Cruz usually lease land (often zoned residential) from private property owners. But at the end of the housing boom, many saw their leases end as property owners sold their land to development. Now, the fields of Golf Club Drive are the last substantial arable acres left within the city.

Donkervoort started farming as a child and is one of the original organic farmers of Golf Club Drive. Traces of his native Holland roll his tongue smoothly as he reminisces about his days at Santa Cruz Farms and Blue Heron. "We grew lettuce mixes before people knew there were different kinds: arugula, radicchio ... That makes me feel old," Donkervoort says with a chuckle.

With his bright eyes, unshorn beard and shaggy sun-kissed hair, it's easy to imagine the 55-year-old on Puccinelli's plot, stomping along the creek. "The soil is giving, rich. ... It's right on the water. We used to find arrowheads all the time," he says, shaking his head. "Why would the city allow the possibility of paving a gift to the community? It's the perfect place not to build, how about that."

Donkervoort, who owns Windmill Farms, had to relocate outside the city to Moss Landing after his lease in Live Oak was cut short to build housing. While he's more secure where land is agriculturally zoned, he prefers what used to be a smaller operation in town. "I like growing in the community better. People like seeing where their food is being grown, the closer the better," he says.

He says that farmable land can't be created--it just exists. "That soil can produce so much good food for the community. The more I read about food food security ... Preserving land for food should be valued over development for once, " he says, "Once it's paved, it's gone. There's no going back."

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