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Nūz: Three years after voters shot it down, another transportation tax surfaces. But this time alternatives to cars get a little more attention.

There was a congratulatory spirit in the air when the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) officially introduced its "proposed mobility plan" last Friday, Oct. 19. The plan—which will be subject to tweaking by numerous interest groups in the coming weeks—calls for a half-cent increase in the county's sales tax to fund a number of transportation projects ranging from expanding Highway One to expanding bus service. The plan is informed by input from members of the Transportation Funding Task Force (TFTF) and a recent survey of 600 voters.

The process is far from over. The sales tax increase will be presented to voters in the November 2008 election only if it can get past one last round of review and voting from the TFTF. It would then be put on the November ballot and require the approval of two-thirds of county voters to pass.

Wait a minute. What year is it, anyhow? Both the plan itself and the uphill battle it faces strike Nu_z as similar to Measure J, a failed 2004 ballot initiative to raise the sales tax for similar transportation improvements. With this in mind, Nu_z decided to do a bit of compare-and-contrast of the two measures.

Both measures allocate funding toward widening Highway One between Santa Cruz and Aptos, although the 2007 plan scales back funding for this by about $84 million dollars, for a total of $300 million.

Where the plan more notably departs from its predecessor is in the realm of "alternative" transit options, which receive half of the money this time, compared to only 42.5 percent in Measure J.

In the 2007 plan, $50 million would fund expansion of train service to the county. Specifically, the plan calls for construction of a train station near Watsonville that will serve as a stop in the proposed Caltrain extension from Gilroy to Salinas, allowing commuters to catch northbound trains to the Bay Area. Additional money would also open the door to eventual passenger service along the train tracks paralleling Highway One from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. By contrast, Measure J allocated $6 million for the Watsonville station but nothing for the additional train projects. Measure J would also have allocated $23 million for a bicycle and pedestrian path along the train tracks, but this is not in the 2007 plan.

This year's mobility plan would direct more money toward improving bus service. Measure J proposed $29 million for this purpose, while the 2007 plan proposes $125 million. This money would go toward a Rapid Transit bus line along (the newly widened) Highway One, the construction of park-and-ride lots, and replacement of old buses.

Taking a step back from the specifics, 2004's Measure J and the new plan share a lot in common. Both call for a half-cent increase in the sales tax, and both would provide funding for a mix of car-based and alternative transportation improvements.

TFTF convener and County Tax Assessor Fred Keeley, however, discerns important differences between Measure J and the new plan. He says transit officials learned an important lesson after Measure J: create walls between project budgets.

"The poison pill that was in Measure J allowed funds to be moved from the non-highway bucket to the highway bucket," says Keeley. Additionally, Keeley believes the plan's makeup, a compromise struck by the TFTF, will prevent groups arguing for highway widening and groups arguing for alternative transportation from locking horns and getting stuck with no money for anything. This was a major problem with Measure J, which both sides say was defeated by the other's wasteful proposals.

"If this process ends up in a ballot measure, it'll mean that two-thirds of the TFTF will have supported it," says Keeley. "The TFTF will then immediately become the basis of a campaign that will be very broad in terms of community representation and will have a year or so to raise several hundred thousand dollars to support the campaign."

There were several key findings in the survey of 600 county voters conducted by Oakland-based EMC Research that contributed to the Proposed Mobility Plan. It found 51 percent of voters support improving public transit, 62 percent believe highway widening is necessary, and 56 percent support extending train service. In other words, concluded the researchers, county residents seem to want improvements on numerous fronts, both highway-related and alternative transit-related.

However, 38 percent of voters didn't want a new tax, no matter what it was for. This percentage was split between 24 percent who "strongly agree" new taxes are the devil and 14 percent who only "somewhat agree." This is actually more than in 2004, when only 27 percent said "No" to new taxes in an early survey. Since the tax increase requires a two-thirds, or just over 66 percent, "Yes" vote, some of these voters need to be sweet-talked into hopping onboard by next year. Not surprisingly, Keeley's sights are set on the 14 percent that only "somewhat agree" taxes are bad.

"I think if presented the right way with the right public education campaign," says Keeley, "some of those leaning voters could then be brought over to support the measure."

40 Acres and A Rule

The Santa Cruz County Planning Department has been working its way through 120 applications—all filed since late May 2007—from people hoping to harvest timber on their rural lands.

The spike in applications comes in the wake of a decision last spring by the Board of Supervisors to exert more local control over where logging happens. Currently, any parcel to be logged that is five acres or smaller falls under the county's jurisdiction and must meet its approval before going on through the state process; above that threshold, parcels fall under the relatively more permissive state rules.

Under the supes' new plan, which will go into effect in January, that threshold is raised to 40 acres—theoretically giving the county the authority to nix many more local logging proposals. Hence, the rush to rezone parcels under 40 acres and safeguard the option to harvest in the future before the new rules kick in.

The new rule, naturally, does not sit well with everyone. Rural property owners and even some of the supes themselves say the California Department of Forestry (CDF) already imposes enough regulations on cutting down trees on private property and that the county should butt out of forest management.

Supporters say they are looking not to micromanage logging projects but to protect neighbors from the disturbances logging entails.

Fifth District Supervisor Mark Stone, who represents many of the heavily wooded areas in the San Lorenzo Valley, has heard his fair share of complaints from neighbors about noisy chainsaws and trucks, as well as the damage done to privately owned (and often neighborhood-maintained) rural roads by heavy logging trucks.

In Stone's experience, these complaints are more numerous on property that is smaller than 40 acres. People who own more than 40 acres of forest generally have fewer neighbors; ergo, fewer complaints.

"The biggest conflicts we have are when logging operations happen adjacent to neighborhoods in denser areas where people are trying to conduct their lives," says Stone, adding that the revised ordinance won't stop logging sites of fewer than 40 acres but will instead give the county a legal basis to intervene in controversial cases. Cate Moore, who represents small landowners in her role as president of the Central Coast Forest Association, believes the county maintains an "unequal balance" when hearing complaints from neighbors.

"The nuisance factor [for neighbors] of someone coming in once every 10 years seems to override the fact that for the other nine years there's peace and quiet, a beautiful landscape, and less fire risk," says Moore.In reality, she says, a parcel of land can only be harvested once every 10 years under state law. Small parcels are unlikely to submit more than one timber harvest plan per 10-year cycle because the administrative costs are so prohibitive.

Opponents of the new rezoning rule also say the new plan will interfere with their responsibility to cut down dead or dying trees for fire protection. But state law allows residents to thin forests for fire protection and requires a brush-free 150-foot radius around homes.

The possibility of forestland being converted to other uses is one of the chief reasons District Two Supervisor Ellen Pirie joined District Four Supervisor Tony Campos in voting against such an "excessive" increase.

"For many of these parcels, if they can't be logged on a 15- or 20-year cycle, then they have no economic value to their owner," says Pirie. "What's likely to happen is they will be sold for houses. When you get to the question of whether you'd rather have logging every 15 to 20 years that's regulated or have these parcels turn into ranchettes, it's an easy question for me."

Building a few more houses or perhaps a vineyard is not out of the question, says Sarah Neuse at the Planning Department, but the county's slow-growth rules make sprawling subdivisions in rural areas unlikely. "If people want to swear up and down that they're going to subdivide their property and build a subdivision up in the hills," warns Neuse, "I'd like to see them try."

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the amended ordinance at 9am Wednesday, Oct. 24 in room 525 of the County Government Center at 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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