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12.12.07

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Photograph by Traci Hukill
Why Can't We All just Get Along?: Steve Davenport, managing director for Long Marine Lab, says the Terrace Point project doesn't warrant the outcry it has provoked.

The Invisible Shrinking Plan

Environmentalists gear up for a fight as UCSC's plan for a marine research facility at Terrace Point heads to the Coastal Commission.

By Traci Hukill


At the entrance to UCSC's Center for Marine Health at Terrace Point, a notice is posted that the university is pursuing plans with the California Coastal Commission to expand its marine research facilities. Trapped between paper and glass is a desiccated mosquito hawk. The paper curls at the edges. The date is May 2005.

This Thursday, Dec. 13, after eight years of planning and wrangling, the university's Coastal Long-Range Development Plan goes before the Coastal Commission for the latest in a long series of hearings. In an indication of just how seriously the university takes this one, Chancellor George Blumenthal himself is scheduled to make the case for approval.

At stake is UCSC's 20-year plan to expand its marine science campus and anchor its place in a chain of research institutions that line Monterey Bay, each with unique strengths. The plan—which is for an outline of possible projects rather than a specific set of buildings—could triple the size of the current facilities. Building would be confined to three areas on 34 developable acres, the vast majority in a chunk right in the middle of Terrace Point. It would leave 66 acres of the 100-acre parcel untouched (after habitat restoration). The project lies within city limits.Viewed another way, what's at stake is the preservation of one of the last remaining pieces of coastal wetlands in a part of California where growth pressure is relentless and must always be guarded against. Terrace Point's open spaces are home to raptors, red-legged frogs and spectacular views. They are also a buffer between urban growth to the south and agricultural fields to the north. In fact, the northernmost boundary of Terrace Point is the city limit. And depending on who you ask, what also may be at stake are protections of coastal wetlands throughout the state. Universally, though, opponents think the Westside can't handle the kind of traffic a built-out Terrace Point would generate.

"No one doubts the value of doing more marine research," says Don Stevens of the Coalition to Limit University Expansion (CLUE). "It's the overall growth of the university that's at issue here."Mark Massara, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the Sierra Club, is less diplomatic. He characterizes the plan as "extreme overdevelopment" and points out that the 600,000 square feet of new development is roughly equal to the area of six Wal-Marts. "It's highly ironic that an institution dedicated to preserving coastal resources is so feverishly engaged in trying to destroy them," he says. "There's only one Terrace Point. To pave it over and put up high-rise university buildings is a regrettable shame."

To Long Marine Laboratories managing director Steve Davenport, this is an overreaction, and not only because the "high-rise" buildings have a height limit of 36 feet, or because the six Wal-Marts analogy is faulty (the plan allows for 340,000 new square feet of permanent buildings—of the remaining 240,000 square feet, 150,000 is for roads and the rest is for greenhouses and outbuildings).

"It's not like we're developing a hotel or a resort," Davenport says. "It's hard for me to understand where the opposition is coming from, because what we're proposing is pretty modest."

Two camps, two seemingly incompatible views. It's the perfect formula for a long-term struggle.

Scaling Down
Environmentalists and would-be developers have been fighting over Terrace Point since 1988, when then-owner Wells Fargo proposed a 350-unit housing development there. When that idea met with public outcry, Wells Fargo added a marine research component to the plan. The city still didn't buy it, and Wells Fargo retreated. In 1997 the bank proposed an adjusted plan with some 170 houses and apartments, combined with marine research facilities and even an inn, all in a walkable, New Urbanism-inspired environment. When this, too, failed to win approval, Wells Fargo sold the property to the university.

Plans started immediately for an expanded research campus, but it didn't go before the Coastal Commission until 2005. That plan, approved by commission staff, was very similar to this one, although it included 80 apartments where visiting researchers and new employees could live for up to three years. (Like this plan, it also included 10 rooms for overnight guests and 30 "researcher rooms," ranging from motel-type to dorm-type rooms and even efficiencies for visiting scholars.)

Local environmentalists, though, challenged the designation of the property as buildable, arguing that it's a wetlands. For evidence they pointed to the presence throughout the property of false willow, a plant that is on the Fish and Wildlife Service's list of species that typically indicate the presence of wetlands. Thus began one of the most extensive wetlands delineation efforts ever undertaken by the California Coastal Commission—in all, three years of field research and pots of public money.

All Wet or Not?
After the 2005 challenge, UCSC did another year of study and returned in April 2006. But questions about the wetlands persisted. Were the wetlands in confined areas or throughout the property? Seasonal or year-round? The commission suggested that its own staff ecologist, John Dixon, get second opinions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. In July the answer came back: liberal distribution of false willow notwithstanding, the wetlands were limited to a few small areas. In essence, the Coastal Commission staff's approval of the project stood.That finding has some environmentalists worried about how this decision will affect coastal wetlands all over the state. Whereas EPA and the Army Corps require the presence of three factors—indicator plants, hydric soils and wetlands hydrology—in order to declare a piece of land a wetlands, the Coastal Commission requires just one. The fear is that by making this decision, the commission sends the message that it now takes two factors to prove a wetlands exists—thereby lowering the barrier to development.

"People fear that if the Coastal Commission approves this project they'll be setting a precedent, changing the standard of how wetlands are defined," says CLUE's Stevens. "Most coastal wetlands have been developed or eliminated already—that's the reason for the Coastal Commission's supposedly more protective stance."

Dixon, the commission's staff ecologist, says those fears are unfounded. First, he says, nearly all the plants on the Fish and Wildlife Service list also grow in uplands "with some frequency," so the presence of a listed plant doesn't automatically mean the area is a wetlands. If other factors, like the soil profile, don't fit with the definition of a wetlands, it's safe to assume the area is not a wetlands. In this case, Dixon says, none of the factors was met, so the Coastal Commission's standard has not been compromised.

But the environmental groups aren't likely to buy that argument or any other arguments set forth by the university at tomorrow's meeting. It's just too big a development to pass muster, says Massara, even if the goal of marine research is a noble one.

"It's not an attack on their character. It's a refusal to accept their development plan."

The UCSC Coastal Long-Range Development Plan will be presented at the Coastal Commission meeting on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 9am at San Francisco City Hall. The meeting will also be viewable online at www.coastal.ca.gov.


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