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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

County dismantles barriers to mother-in-law units; Shelterless at the bus stop; Simitian's make-a-law contest.

Homeowners in the unincorporated county (and the tenants who love them) can stop holding their collective breath over how the county plans to handle second units.

On Aug. 28, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors did the once unimaginable, approving—at least conceptually—the most significant simplification in planning rules in the last 30 years. Twenty-two changes make it easier to do smaller additions, upgrades and repairs.

Many of the changes simply turn tortuous former mazes into straight lines. The height limit for all additional accessory structures will now be the same: 28 feet. The vertical go-ahead-and-repair zone will be the same as the actual heights of houses, without any special permitting brouhaha, even if they're older and taller than more recent height limits permit.

More important, however, are profound changes in the treatment of what's officially called "accessory structures"—buildings other than main houses. These changes reflect a subtle but growing shift in how Americans live.

That shift has encompassed three eras. A century ago, homes overwhelmingly functioned as units of production: farms, dairies, repair shops and the like. By the 1950s, when most planning rules were written, that was no longer the case: industry provided the production, and the home was solely a place of consumption. The outcome is that most recent urban and suburban planning rules have said, essentially, "Get rid of all that trash." No potting sheds, barns or backyard cottages. And older residents, used to that cleanly regime, have fought like mad to keep those rules on the books.

But recent generations, enabled by technology and inspired by garage-originated success stories, want their domestic productivity back. And productivity means having covered spaces in which to accomplish it, even if only a place to wash the backyard-grown organic greens.

Santa Cruz County Planning Department Director Tom Burns and staff's push to make it easier for that to happen did not go unnoticed. "I'm afraid we're going to end up with little communes or something," commented Supervisor Ellen Pirie at new allowances for accessory structures, at the changes' first hearing on June 14. "This is a major departure," objected Supervisor Jan Beautz, to plans to drop the tenant review process for every new resident of second units. Back in the 1980s, there were agreements about this, noted former building contractor Kevin Collins—and the rules shouldn't change, because in his experience, people cheat.

Cheating and how to handle it, in fact, arose as the primary theme of public testimony at the Aug. 28 hearing.

Burns suggested hiring an extra code enforcement officer and requiring potential builders to agree to occasional inspections.

Claire Machado, a former county code enforcement staffer, pointed out possible constitutional issues. "All of a sudden government wants to knock on your door and say, 'We want to see your house,'" worried Realtor Barbara Palmer.

Next came worries about the number of potential accessory buildings, of all kinds, that might arise. Supervisor Beautz, opposing the department's plan to drop the five-per-year cap on second units in her district, instead called for caps for all districts. No can do, responded the department—the state has declared the ability to build a second unit by right; that is, if you've got a big enough lot and there are no overwhelming health or safety problem, it's yours to do. Beautz, as a result, voted against second-unit simplifications.

But in the end, the board was convinced, and the total package now enters the ordinance-language-writing phase. After that, it goes to the County Planning Commission, and after that, the sections affecting coastal areas will go through the Coastal Commission. Then, if all goes well, will come the sighs of relief.

Burns, who as planning director has shepherded both a remarkable breakthrough in housing element policy and a major simplification of county planning code, frames this as a first step.

"Historically there's been a sense in the community that the price of protecting our environment and the character of our neighborhoods is having a very tight regulatory system—even for the smallest development projects," Burns wrote to Nu_z.

"We believe that we can make it easier for the average homeowner and business owner to do small-scale development projects and still protect those core community values. Today's action by the board was hopefully the first of many steps down that road."

Bus Stops Lose Lids

John Wirth felt like he had been left out of the loop. After wrapping up a routine trip to the Felton Faire shopping center in the summer of 2005, he made his way across the parking lot toward the bus stop, only to discover that the shelter that had protected him from oppressive summer sun and cold winter rain had inexplicably been dismantled. Wirth, who is disabled and relies solely on the bus for transportation, asked friends and nearby residents if they knew the fate of the missing bus shelter, but everyone seemed to be in the dark.

After a year of waiting and another of unsuccessfully petitioning the Metropolitan Transit District, Wirth took the issue to a number of local politicians and perhaps the most dependable Santa Cruz institution, Nu_z.

As it happens, the county's entire bus shelter infrastructure is getting a metallic face-lift, and the Highway 9 stops are among the first 10 to be replaced. Transit officials, far from intentionally leaving people to soak in the rain, are waiting for money to come through from the cash-strapped State Transit Assistance Fund.

That doesn't make Wirth's wait more comfortable. "It's 95 degrees out here, and that blacktop gets hot," he complains. "I come out of air-conditioned Safeway and that blacktop is 120 degrees! There is absolutely no shade, and in the wintertime you have to go across that parking lot while it's pouring down rain."

Wirth frames his complaint as a health issue, arguing that sick or elderly people could suffer illness from exposure to the elements, but Transit District General Manager Les White maintains the shelters were actually taken out as a public safety precaution.

"Those shelters had been put in years and years and years ago and the wooden supports were rotting and needed to be taken out because they were unsafe," he says. "We have been assembling money as fast as we can to buy additional shelters."

The Transit District plans to replace a total of 60 shelters across the county with new and improved Anodized aluminum shelters at a cost of $3,000 each, but a number of complications have arisen. In 2005, state politicians drawing up the budget in Sacramento raided the public transit assistance fund (a bad habit of theirs) to pay general fund operating expenses. In 2006 the fund got through the process unscathed, so the district ordered up 30 sets of the spiffy new shelters. The next 30 might have to wait another year, since the fund was raided yet again in the 2008 budget process.

In any event, the district plans to install 10 new shelters in the next month, including two on Highway 9.

Alas, Wirth may have to sweat it out a while longer. The Felton Faire bus shelter is caught in a tangle of red tape; property owner Robert Marin is demanding that an encroachment permit be obtained before anything goes up on his property. The Transit District has the documents prepared and is awaiting his signature.

White says he sympathizes with Wirth's situation, never meant to keep him in the dark and considers it the "top priority" of his office to install the new shelters. "The minute we actually got the money, we immediately went out and ordered shelters," he says. "We have the new shelters here and would love to install them."

There Oughta Be a Law

Most people do not realize the amount of political influence they can wield if they're willing to go out and use it. To help bring light to the power of citizenship, California state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is putting on his annual "There Oughta Be a Law" contest. Any Californian can go online to his website,, and propose legislation that would then have a chance to be introduced to lawmakers next spring.

Last year, Sen. Simitian received over 250 ideas. He ended up choosing one submitted by Aptos High School student Rebecca Kassel. After discussing water pollution with her college adviser, she decided she needed to become educated on the subject and take action. Kassel, who has since graduated, introduced a law to require pharmacies to take back unused prescription drugs that otherwise end up polluting our water supplies after being thrown in the trash.

"I was trying to figure out what was being done to help stop improperly disposing of prescription drugs. I discovered that nothing has been done to stop it," Kassel explains. The bill, S.B. 966, has since passed in the Senate by a vote of 21-13. It still needs to pass the Assembly.

Contest winners are invited to come to Sacramento and testify at a formal hearing about their proposal, have lunch with Sen. Simitian and take home a California state flag that has flown over the Capitol.

Anyone who looks around his or her community and sees something that needs to be changed can make an impact by becoming directly involved in the political process. Even the ideas not chosen are still read and considered by the senator. All that's needed is a practical idea and a little bit of research. Everyone knows filling in lines on a ballot filled with propositions that make zero sense to most nonlawyers is not the most satisfying means of political participation.

Kassel decided to take her involvement a step further by starting a website outlining her concerns over the issue of prescription drugs contaminating our water supply. Her site,, also includes a petition anyone can sign that will be presented to the state Assembly prior to the vote.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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