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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Scotts Valley backs out of housing development, UCSC prof questions obesity epidemic, sea otters don't like your cat's litter, and Night Light returns

Aviza Blues

A housing development proposed for Scotts Valley is off the table because city officials have been dragging their feet, according to officials at the business now occupying the site.

Dale Spencer, vice president at Aviza Technology, got the impression over the last three years that city leaders agreed with the company that its location in a bowl near the old Scotts Valley airport would be perfect for residential units because of the park, existing government services and retail stores planned for the nearby Skypark town center. They also seemed to agree, according to Spencer, that the site would be unsuitable for continued commercial or industrial uses, which usually requires a high level of visibility and the freedom to operate at hours that might otherwise bother residential neighbors.

Now Spencer says the political climate in the city has changed to a more cautious approach, causing a potential buyer and developer of the property, the Morley Bros., to pull out of the project before their 90-day due diligence period ended. This follows KB Homes' decision to pull out of an agreement to purchase the property last year. At the heart of the matter is the city's reluctance to promise to rezone the property to residential, causing housing developers to shop for more promising situations elsewhere.

"The City Council members have all come down to the site at different times, and they've known what we want to do," says a frustrated Spencer, who wants to move Aviza's semiconductor capital equipment manufacturing plant to Silicon Valley so the company can be closer to suppliers and customers. "Frankly, they seemed to support the move and were eager for us to get it going. Then when we did get it going, it wasn't a priority. We don't understand why they're changing their position."

Mayor Dene Bustichi and Vice Mayor Randy Johnson, both of whom expressed hesitation about the rezoning, did not return calls by presstime. But City CouncilMember Stephany Aguilar, who supported the rezoning proposal, says her compatriots want to focus on one project at a time.

"If I heard them correctly, some of the other councilmembers are concerned the rezoning may interfere with the downtown project," says Aguilar, who added that she couldn't understand why the rezoning couldn't be incorporated into the larger town center plan. "We do need to have a house and job balance, but I don't know if the city can force a company to stay around, and I certainly don't want to see them go under."

Aviza chief financial officer Patrick O'Connor also says certain councilmembers are leery of building too many homes under unstable market conditions and worry about the possible effects on police and fire protection.

Additionally, some councilmembers are waiting for an industrial or commercial developer to make an offer on the property to keep jobs within the city. O'Connor argues that not only is this unlikely due to the fact that Scotts Valley has substandard infrastructure and an unfortunate location, but that the city may actually be better served monetarily by building homes. As evidence for this claim, O'Connor cites a report by the Blue Sky Consulting Group that says 200 homes built in a California city generate $150,000 in tax revenue per year—enough, he says, to pay for additional fire and police protection.

O'Connor also cites an abundance of water on the site, about 50 million gallons per year, of which the residential development proposed would have only used 21 million gallons per year. This would have left 29 million gallons per year to be routed to the Scotts Valley Water District's pipelines, which could potentially supply the water to the town center or other residents.

This water-sharing proposal could have been complicated by the fact that the water is being pumped from a Superfund site, but Spencer says the EPA and former occupants Watkins Johnson have almost completed cleanup operations and the water should be cleared for residential use as soon as the cash-strapped EPA gets around to doing its final tests.

When it gets right down to it, O'Connor admits he is thinking in purely economic terms and doesn't understand why the city can't think in these terms as well.

"I want to monetize the asset so I can get rid of debt, lower my overhead and get on with my business. I want to do it as a good corporate citizen with the support of my neighbors," he says. "How to generate revenue faster is what the city should be thinking about. I think that if they're trying to entice retailers to move in [for the town center], a couple hundred more homes would give them the opportunity to generate even more revenue and generate a bigger, better retailer."

Big Fat Myth

It's become the common wisdom that the United States is suffering from an obesity epidemic, but perhaps the problem isn't exactly what our image-conscious popular culture says it is. The current issue of the journal Gastronomica deals with the politics of food and includes articles by five scholars from UCSC. In one of the articles, UCSC associate professor of community studies Julie Guthman challenges the conventional view of this weighty issue. Guthman argues that the evidence for there being an epidemic is very weak, in part because it is based on the Body Mass Index (BMI). "It's the way that BMI is categorized that's really problematic because it is arbitrary," Guthman argues; BMI cannot tell the difference between fat and muscle mass.

So why do we believe there is an obesity epidemic? Guthman concedes that a lot of people are getting fatter, but explains that our obesity talk works to perpetuate individuals' anxieties over being fat. "I've learned in teaching my politics of obesity class that the course increases body anxiety despite what students are learning. So I'm contributing to the problem in teaching about it," Guthman admits. By focusing on fat individuals as the problem within our public discourse, Americans further the anxiety over weight by objectifying fat people and treating them as if they should feel ashamed for not being thin.

Guthman says that it is the U.S. food system that should be interrogated, not individuals. Diets, drugs and other purported weight-loss remedies only work to intensify the belief in an obesity epidemic. The underlying reasons Americans are getting larger have to do with the politics of food, and go below the surface causes of too much TV watching, video games and commercial advertising.

Misused agricultural subsidies that encourage farmers to grow one kind of crop and to partake in actions such as food-dumping have led Americans to live with a food system that helps to bring about unhealthy eating habits, she says. "I would like to see attention focused on the way agricultural subsidies and weak food health and safety regulation contribute to a nutritionally debilitated food supply—especially for those without income to buy their way out of it," Guthman explains.

And while these issues are covered in popular books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Marion Nestle's What to Eat, Guthman detects a whiff of snobbery in the authors' positions that most people, given the option to eat too much, will do so. As she writes in her essay (cleverly titled "Can't Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos"), "If junk food is so ubiquitous that it cannot be resisted, how is it that some people remain (or become) thin? It appears, unfortunately, that these authors see themselves as morally superior to fat people in the sense that they characterize fat people as being short of subjectivity."

The anxiety over fat is very much apparent in our culture and continues to lead many people to try just about anything to lose weight. Guthman adds, "Well, it's interesting that people don't talk about an epidemic of profound skinniness. We don't know the exact relationship between obesity talk and anorexia, but we do know that bodies are getting both fatter and thinner these days."

Our Otters, Our Selves

Don't flush kitty litter! This and other notes will be discussed during Sea Otter Awareness Week at venues throughout Monterey Bay. Sea otters, lauded as California's cute, cheek-rubbing mascot, will be in the spotlight from Japan to Brooklyn starting this Sunday. Jim Curland, marine program associate at Defenders of Wildlife, is hoping the talks and exhibitions will alert people to otters' uniqueness and concerns—and also our own. Otters are part of the sentinel species affected by land/sea connections: when they're in trouble, we're in trouble. According to Dr. Dave Jessup, senior wildlife veterinarian at the state Department of Fish and Game, a "suite of chemicals" is causing high levels of mortality in prime-age adult otters, much of it suspected to be coming from soiled kitty litter, human waste, fertilizers and opossum poop. The flow of filth entering our oceans is creating toxin levels in otters 50 to 100 times higher than in pristine parts of Alaska.

Otters are plagued not only by disease but by disturbed habitats. Otters forage for invertebrates, which ensures kelp forests' health. Recreationists come from all corners to enjoy this nook. Most do so responsibly but some do not, disrupting otters' valuable rest, play time and food supply.

While it seems otters in our bay have a carefree existence, that's not so, says Michelle Staedler of Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. They spend 40 percent to 50 percent of their day foraging, an especially big task for mother otters. And while Monterey Bay otters are having lots of pups, for reasons still unknown not a lot survive. Out of 15 females Staedler is studying, seven had pups last year and only three survived—a disheartening figure when one looks at the numbers. Of the approximately 20,000 otters that once resided in Monterey Bay, only 3,026 remain today, and this was a good year. Last year the figure was 2,692. Like the stock market, sea otter numbers are viewed by trend, and it is upward, but slower than anyone would like.

The good news is Monterey Bay is the hub of researchers and constituencies invested in a healthy sea. Propelled by local efforts, state legislators are getting on board to protect the sea otters. Last tax year voters had the option of supporting otters in a tax check-off box. That equaled $235,000 for different environmental organizations, high for a first-time endeavor, says Curland.

Gov. Schwarzenegger also signed a bill requiring bags of cat litter to be labeled before tossing. Flushing cat waste releases Toxoplasma gondii into the water, which, as any pregnant mother will tell you, can be fatal to fetuses. Otters suffer too, and the bill is intended to prevent cat feces from ending up in sewage plants, which don't filter out Toxoplasma, whereas landfills do take measures to process the parasite.

We think housing prices are high for near-shore living, but sea otters are telling us—with their lives—the price is much higher.

SEA OTTER AWARENESS WEEK activities include: A presentation by Gena Bentall, SORAC researcher, on Monday, Sept. 24, at 7pm in the Seminar Room at Moss Landing Marine Labs, 7532 Sandholdt Road, Suite 5. Moss Landing; a presentation by Michelle Staedler and Monterey Bay Aquarium staff veterinarian Mike Murray at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Tuesday, Sept. 25; a presentation by wildlife photographer Bryant Austin and Long Marine Lab technician Erin Dodd on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the Seymour Discovery Center, UCSC; and a talk by Dr. Tim Tinker, UCSC research biologist, on Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, UCSC.

Peaces of Light

A year ago, Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Arts director Kirby Scudder made national headlines organizing Night Light, a community happening/art project that beamed 500 high-wattage lights into the night sky on Sept. 21, the United Nations International Day of Peace. It was a remarkable event, with 20,000 people coming out to line West Cliff Drive, helicopters filming it from overhead and reporters calling Scudder from far-flung places like London and Washington. And it hardly cost a thing. A benefactor purchased the $16,000 in lights, and Scudder had to put down a few hundred dollars in deposits to the city in case the place got trashed (which it didn't).

For this year's event, which takes place Thursday, Sept. 20, at 9pm, Scudder is changing up the formula. Instead of lining everyone up on three miles of West Cliff, he's setting up the project to run from Lighthouse Point on West Cliff to Walton Lighthouse at the Harbor. This time the wharf and the Boardwalk are involved. At 9pm sharp, 2,500-watt searchlights perched along the length of the wharf will come up, along with the wharf's own powerful roof lights (darkened until then). On the darkened Boardwalk, the Big Dipper will light up, and of course the 500 big lights, all clustered onto one small stretch of West Cliff, will start blazing. Finally, Scudder wants all participants to bring their own flashlights.

Scudder says the new arrangement is about including the wharf and the Boardwalk, two Santa Cruz institutions, and not a response to criticism from last year that the effect was diluted by the headlights from cars lined up on West Cliff.

"There are two camps," he says. "There's a camp that felt the ambient lights from the cars spoiled the lights shooting up. But this is not a Las Vegas light show. I felt really strongly that car lights were part of the project—they're part of life, and we live in America—and so it's not because I wanted to eliminate car lights from the project."

Scudder likes the "asymmetric poetry" of this year's setup, with bright concentrations of light along West Cliff and the wharf and dimmer concentrations along the beaches. And it's costing even less than last year's event: under $2,000, he says—about $1,000 to rent the spotlights, plus deposits to city departments, which he can't praise enough for their willingness to "basically turn this thing over to me."

"The city government has been phenomenal," he says.

NIGHT LIGHT needs people to coordinate the switching on of more than 500 lights. Volunteers should gather at Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz between 6pm and 8pm on Thursday, Sept. 20.

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