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Point of Contention

Terrace Point
Conflicting Viewpoints: Where John Bakalian would like to see a world-class marine research center, Diane Doubrava sees the destruction of the last open coastal field in the city of Santa Cruz.

Robert Scheer

A North Coast turf battle pits housing and research against agriculture and preservation at one of the city's last wild open spaces

By Eric Johnson

LIGHTHOUSE FIELD. WINGSPREAD. Wilder Ranch. The names evoke bucolic locations and glorious scenery. But many locals remember when they were war zones. The beauty of these places serves as a reminder that the peaceful community of Santa Cruz has defined itself through a series of vicious land-use fights dating back 30 years.

Add another name to that list: Terrace Point.

Standing on the point itself, two visions converge. There is a pretty, miniature cove, about 200 feet of coastline, a 60-acre field--overgrown with "volunteer" grasses and bushes--and vistas that encompass the wild beauty of Santa Cruz's North Coast.

Sea lions and pelicans can be seen playing the waves and air currents every day, and it's possible to catch glimpses of swallow-tailed kites, otters and coyotes. Nobody on either side of the debate denies that the view is spectacular, even if you have to squint a little to see it all in the face of the strong winds that blow offshore almost 300 days of the year.

Another vision of Terrace Point is either a dream or a fantasy, depending on whom you ask. It is described by the development corporation known as the Santa Cruz Marine Research Center, laid out in a two-inch-thick "Specific Plan" written by Matthew Thompson, a local architect, and Jim Pepper, longtime UCSC professor and one of the nation's premier environmental planners.

Terrace Point, according to this document, is destined to become a model of urban planning based on the sanctity of place.

Imagine a community where people can walk to work, where there is plenty of rental housing that regular folks can afford, as well as some houses for sale that are within reach of a typical Santa Cruz working couple.

Imagine parks and open space where critters can move from Antonelli Pond to Younger Lagoon, and an expanse along the bluff that is simply left alone for residents and anyone else who feels like coming along.

Imagine a visitors' center for the neighboring Long Marine Lab, a nice little seaside inn with rooms that cost about 65 bucks a night, a cool restaurant and bar with dart boards and cheap beer. Picture a small farm that feeds everyone who lives and works in the community.

Now imagine, at the heart of this vision, a place where people can do meaningful work: an oceanographic institute that employs 500 people studying the life of the world's biggest marine wildlife refuge--the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.

That is the vision that Thompson and Pepper created to guide the development that their employer, Wells Fargo Bank, proposes for Terrace Point.

According to its authors, the plan contributes to Santa Cruz's "compact, vital urban core," fulfilling the objective laid out in the city's General Plan. But the plan's opponents argue that it's all a ruse perpetrated by one of the world's biggest banks to destroy the last piece of open coastal bluff in the city of Santa Cruz.

Trojan Horse

LEGEND HAS IT THAT the army of Athens defeated the city-state of Troy by using a clever trick. The Athenians left a huge wooden horse--with a number of soldiers secretly stowed away in its belly--outside the gates of their rival city. The Trojans, intrigued, brought the great horse inside their walls, letting the enemy in and leading to their defeat.

The folks who oppose the Terrace Point project see a Trojan horse in the shape of a proposed marine lab.

More than 50 of these citizens, many of them angry, showed up to discuss Terrace Point at a recent joint meeting of the Santa Cruz Planning Commission and Zoning Board. After the developers spent an hour laying out their plan, the opponents lined up to state their protests.

One after another, they took their turns, most of them stretching the three-minute limit imposed by the chair. Some were concerned about wildlife, some about traffic. Many expressed dismay that the place's historical use--agriculture--was being abandoned.

But while their specific grievances differed, most of the people who had come out on this Thursday night agreed on one thing: All this talk about a marine research lab is a smoke screen, a pretty idea being used to disguise the developer's real intent, which is to build a big housing development, a hotel and a restaurant.

Members of the Terrace Point Action Network, a three-year-old group well represented at the meeting, regularly refer to Pepper and Thompson's report as "the non-Specific Plan." The citizen activists say the plan is filled with claims that aren't backed up, and that the language is purposely vague so that the developers cannot be held to their promises.

They point out--accurately--that the Marine Research Center doesn't have a contract with even one tenant. The U.S. Geological Survey, which was in on the project a few years ago, backed off when its funding was cut, and the National Marine Fisheries lab in Tiburon, the only research institution that sent representatives to the meeting, faces its own money problems, which keep it from formally committing to the project.

Even the city Planning Department, which has been supportive of the project, complained in a recent letter to the developers that the "application does not provide enough information given the approvals being sought."

Wells Fargo responded by deciding to blow off the Planning Department and deal directly with the Santa Cruz City Council.

The opponents scoff at the idea of a funky bar and grill, or an "inn" with affordable rooms for visiting scientists. What they see coming down the pike instead is a fancy clifftop hotel and an exclusive restaurant.

And while the developers insist that the 144 proposed rental units and 46 for-sale homes are there for staff, opponents charge that there is nothing to keep the builders from filling the houses with anyone ready to fork over a down payment, or first- and last-month's rent and security deposit.

It's the Water

DIANE DOUBRAVA, a resident of the neighboring DeAnza Mobile Home Park, accuses the developers of waging a propaganda campaign, and calls the promise of a research center "The Big Lie." She refers to internal memos that were unearthed during a recent whistleblower case against the U.S. Geological Survey. These documents show correspondence between the USGS and Gary Griggs, head of the UCSC Marine Sciences division.

Doubrava and others are convinced the memos prove that Griggs, a supporter of the project, conspired to create the false impression that a USGS program slated for the center was "coastal dependent." That legal definition is necessary for the Coastal Commission to allow the development to go forward. In order for the project to achieve "coastal dependent" designation, it must prove a need--in this case, seawater. (The judge has yet to decide on the case, and Griggs was unavailable for comment.)

"That's how the Big Lie started," Doubrava says. "If they had been honest from the get-go, and said, 'What we really want to do is put a big, fancy housing project in there,' then we could fight them on those terms. But it's hard to fight a Big Lie."

"This is really a residential and commercial development, and should be identified as such," she says. "Otherwise, I feel like the guy in Jerry Maguire: 'Show me the research.'"

Doubrava's colleague in Terrace Point Action Network, Gordon Pusser, is equally skeptical. He says many members of the group have a similar response when told of the bank's promise to build a world-class marine lab: "If you believe that, then I've got a bridge to sell you."

"Wells Fargo isn't even the developer," Pusser points out. "They're going to get this plan approved, and then they're going to sell it. As far as I can tell, they've got no legally binding agreements. There are a lot of things they say they're going to do, but none of it is legally binding. Somebody could buy the development and then go in and do whatever they want."

City Attorney John Barisone insists these folks are mistaken. "When the City Council approves a project, it can impose all kinds of conditions to ensure that it's in accordance with the General Plan," Barisone says. "If a developer wants to deviate from the plan in any way, it's got to go back to the council."

Whatever the legal restraints, Marine Research Center spokesperson Mike Wallace says it should be evident that the bank will honor its word, purely out of self-interest. He urges citizens to "do the math." The Specific Plan allows the developer to sell 32 acres of land, of which 12 acres is housing. With requirements that 35 percent of the housing be affordable for low- and middle-income families, that land is worth a half-million an acre, tops, he says. That's $6 million. He says the bank will have to spend as much as $4 million on infrastructure and wetlands mitigation, and has already spent up to $2 million on the planning process.

Without the research center, he concludes, the deal is a bust.

Welcome to LA

WALLACE, FORMER EDITOR of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, concedes that Wells Fargo brought much of the controversy on itself with its first plan. Back in '88, the bank took over the property after foreclosing on a bad loan. "They then made what was, in retrospect, a bad decision," Wallace says. Wells Fargo brought in a Southern California developer, who proposed a 350-unit plan more suited to the San Fernando Valley than to the North Coast.

Following intense public opposition, Wells Fargo introduced another plan that included a marine lab--a move almost universally cited as a cynical ploy to overcome opposition.

Jim Pepper first got involved in the Terrace Point project because he bitterly opposed the plan that Wells Fargo put on the table in 1989. "It had no vision of the environmental constraints of the site, no sense of the community's needs, and no understanding of what a coastal use at that site might be," he says.

Still basking in the glow of a recent success as head of Vision Santa Cruz, which guided the city's post-earthquake recovery, Pepper joined his voice to those publicly decrying the Terrace Point project.

Wells Fargo responded by hiring him on.

Before taking the job, Pepper says, he grilled the guys from the bank. "I was unequivocal in my statements to Wells Fargo that we weren't going to be told what to do," Pepper said in a recent interview from his new home in Bozeman, Montana. "If they wanted to know what local professionals thought was appropriate, then I'd be glad to proceed on that basis."

Having written the environmental impact report for the Long Marine Lab, Pepper was very familiar with the concept and the location. "I knew that to build a marine research facility, you didn't just plop buildings down on a curved road and call it done," he says.

Pepper asked Stuart Kensinger, Wells Fargo's vice-president and point man, to head out on the road and visit similar labs around the country. Kensinger went to Woods Hole in Massachusetts, Scripps Institute in Southern California, and every other similar operation.

Then architect Thompson and Pepper began to assemble what they call their "dream team" of experts: eight universally respected scientists and planners.

Describing the process, Pepper calls up rhetorical skills honed in 20-plus years as a professor. "We took an environmentally conscious perspective designed to reflect, respect and respond to the environmental constraints of the site," he says. "We then created a plan with the research lab as the centerpiece, surrounded by a constellation of affiliated uses that are critical to making the place work."

The nation's premier marine science facilities are all located in very scenic places, Pepper says, which means they also happen to be situated on very pricey real estate. Woods Hole, for example, is located a stone's throw from Martha's Vineyard, where an acre of land is worth up to a million dollars.

"All of these places had housing difficulties," he says. So the housing, in Pepper's view, is absolutely crucial to the research mission. Following the same reasoning, he insists the inn is simply in the plan to afford visiting scientists cheap accommodations.

Even the restaurant is crucial, he says. Faced with charges that the place would become a posh tourist destination, Pepper laughs.

"The analog for the restaurant is a place at Woods Hole called Captain Kidd's," he says. "It's a little bar where scientists and other staff meet to have a few beers and shoot darts. It's acknowledged to be one of the most important catalysts for research on the grounds, because people who don't get to see each other on a day-to-day basis get together. It fosters the kind of serendipitous discoveries that drive a lot of scientific research."

Pepper bristles at the notion that he was simply bought off to create a smokescreen, or that he has abandoned his once-celebrated concern for protecting the environment. "There's a mobile home park on one side, the Long Marine Lab on the other, and on the north side, it's zoned industrial," he says. "I don't see this as some sort of pristine, sylvan, forest primeval that's being desecrated."

Vanishing Wetlands

THE FIELD THAT STRETCHES out beyond Terrace Point's bluff does not immediately appear to be a post-industrial wasteland. But many of the grasses and bushes that cover it are weeds--invasive species of vegetation that didn't exist there, or anywhere else on this continent, before this piece of land was settled 100 years ago.

The natural character of Terrace Point was destroyed back then, and replaced with what some environmental scientists today would call an industrial farming monoculture: Brussels sprouts.

That may be part of the reason why, when the city wrote its General Plan in 1972 and then revised it in 1994, two generations of progressive planners and city councilmembers decided that Terrace Point should be used for housing and coastal-dependent industry. Although they were intent on creating a greenbelt to surround the city and protect its rural character and agricultural heritage, the area they called "the western lands" was intentionally taken out of consideration.

Barney Elders, member of the Terrace Point Action Network and the Sierra Club's local executive committee, says that is the root of the controversy at Terrace Point. "This whole thing got off to a bad start because the City Council approved the General Plan without really knowing there were wetlands out there," he says. "Maybe they didn't go out there, or maybe they just didn't see it.

"Or maybe somebody had a vision, which has carried through to today, of having a fancy research facility out there--just like the Lighthouse Point dream of a convention center," Elders adds. "They made up their mind and came up with the reasoning afterwards."

Walking the site, even in the beginning of the dry season, the wetlands are hard to miss. Two areas are impassable because they're so thickly overgrown with rock cress, a species that thrives in moist environments. The two plots occasionally are filled with the unmistakable song and flash of red-winged blackbirds, which haunt marshes and swamps everywhere in the West.

John Bakalian, the Research Center's project coordinator, swears there was nothing sinister about the oversight. "The farmer who was out there before the bank got the land had Brussels sprouts in the seasonal pond," Bakalian says. "They weren't wetlands back then. The wetlands simply weren't there."

By 1994, the wetlands were no longer planted over or secret. During a review in November of that year, members of Terrace Point Action Network requested that the General Plan be amended to recognize their existence. Planning staff at that meeting suggested that the issue would be better dealt with during the Specific Plan process.

Now, all the players have changed: None of the ten elected officials or two staffers present at the 1994 meeting still holds the same office or job.

Planning staff now say the wetlands issue was settled during the General Plan process.

A Job Wells Done

ANOTHER CHANGE CAME over Terrace Point after the Brussels sprout farm was forced to abandon the site. In 1990, Wells Fargo disabled the well that had irrigated the field for generations by pouring cement down the pipe.

Opponents all say this was a devious effort to thwart the land's best use. As further evidence that the land's agricultural heritage is being erased from the history books, they attack a recently completed EIR, prepared for the city by Stephanie Strelow, which grades the land as less-than-prime farmland.

Bakalian and Wallace counter that Strelow is an independent working for the city. They say they were compelled to shut the well by city ordinance.

Bill Kocher, director of the city's Water Department, backs up the developers' claims. "If a well isn't operational, the correct way to deal with it is to pour grout or concrete down it," Kocher says. He says that's because a well can be a conduit for pollutants to work their way into the groundwater if they aren't properly closed, and commends the developers for taking care of something that could have become a problem.

Mike Wallace insists that every step of this process has been similarly marked by cooperation with the representatives of the public. "If you step back and look at this thing dispassionately, it's a case of a large corporation trying to bow to the wishes of local government and give it what it wants," he says. "This is the way a democracy is supposed to work--corporations should be responsible to elected officials."

Wallace and Bakalian both say the city can demand that the project develop according to what the people will accept. If the council requires, for instance, that the building of homes is "phased" along with the marine center, the bank will go along with the councilmembers' desires, and nothing will be built until the research center is up and running.

"Bullshit," says Barney Elders. "If Wells Fargo doesn't get the deal they want, they're going to sue the city of Santa Cruz."

An attorney by trade, Elders cites recent "takings" lawsuits, where land-owners and developers have successfully sued municipalities for depriving them of economic potential through measures designed to protect the environment. He points to such a case in Lake Tahoe, which is just now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

City Attorney Barisone also is familiar with takings cases, and he's been in contact with Wells Fargo's attorneys. He says he feels confident that the city can tell the bank what to do--within the limits of the General Plan.

"They're good lawyers, and they know what constitutes a taking and what doesn't," Barisone says. "And we do, too. I doubt they're going to give their clients bad legal advice."

Fields of Dreams

BOB GOODE KNOWS this property well. Just up the coast from Terrace Point sits land that has been farmed for more than 100 years, land that has belonged to his wife's family, the Youngers, since 1890. The Long Marine Lab occupies 40 acres donated to the university by the Younger family.

"We do not oppose the concept of a marine research center at Terrace Point," Goode said at the public meeting last month, "but we oppose this plan."

When the developers say this is not prime agricultural land, Goode takes it personally. But his opposition is based more on what goes on in courtrooms than in fields.

Growing artichokes and Brussels sprouts is a chemically intensive operation. It can also be pretty dusty. If Terrace Point fills up with research scientists and their families, Goode says, that will give him legal trouble.

He cites scores of studies by the American Farmland Trust. People who live in new developments near farms, these studies show, have sued farmers and won because plain dirt--and pesticides--blow into yards and onto kids.

"During 214 days out of the 263-day growing season, the wind blows offshore," Goode says. When that wind dusts the new neighbors, "They will want to complain. They will want to sue the farmer," he says.

"We realize this is a dispute between two businesses," Goode says. "We have been a local fixture for over 100 years, an economic source for our tenant farmers, and stewards of open space. They are one of America's five biggest banks, supported by the nation's largest university."

Goode has asked that the Planning Commission create a grievance procedure, and give his family legal protection. If that were to be done--an unlikely event, according to Wallace--Goode might be okay with the project.

But that will not appease all of the area's agricultural interests.

Jonathan Steinberg stood in line until 10pm waiting to speak at last month's public meeting after working his fields since dawn. A representative of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and co-owner of Route One Farms, Steinberg voiced outrage over what he sees as an impending decision to turn potentially excellent farmland into urban sprawl.

Steinberg was particularly agitated over the contention that the land is not well-suited to farming. He grows organic produce on a number of fields almost identical to those at Terrace Point and, by all appearances, makes out pretty well. On a medium-sized plot at the entrance to the Wilder Ranch State Park, a new crop of lettuce--red, green and romaine--is almost ready for harvest. Across the highway, broccoli, spinach and cabbage are coming up.

Patiently lecturing a roomful of urban rubes, Steinberg responded to the EIR's claim of substandard soil by delivering a quick lesson on farm economics.

"Farming isn't something that can be figured on a simple number-chart," Steinberg said. "It's a complex system that involves soil and water, weather and, most importantly, access to markets. All of Santa Cruz County, including the North Coast where I farm, has excellent weather, plentiful water, and we're located an hour from one of the biggest produce markets in the world.

"I'm offended that these people would stand here and say that this land isn't viable for farming," he concluded.

Steinberg and others believe that the Zoning Board and the Planning Commission should follow the California Coastal Act, which requires good farmland to be allowed to remain in production. They fear Terrace Point represents an incursion onto sacred ground.

Diane Doubrava is convinced that if the Terrace Point project is built, development will flood up the North Coast. "Once that 60 acres is all torn up, whatever they put there--hotel, houses, research center--then it's just a matter of time," Doubrava says. "There goes our beautiful coast."

Pepper says that is all but impossible, since the city ends at Terrace Point boundary. "If someone came to me and said, 'Let's do it two miles up the road,' I would have said no," the retired professor says. "I won't be a party to leap-frogging development up the coast."

Shaky Ground

LOCAL TURF BATTLES have moved around, mostly due to shifting political and economic patterns. But places themselves can be shifty and fluid. The oldest maps of this area show a place called Punto Año Nuevo--named in 1602 by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino. Where Año Nuevo Island now stands, 300 years ago there was a long cape that is still regarded as the northern boundary of Monterey Bay.

While the sand spit that once connected Año Nuevo Island to the mainland was eroding and washing out to sea, new points appeared--not through geologic activity, but through the act of naming, which is one of the most telling features of an area's history. So subsequent maps, drawn at various times through the years, show new sites.

Soquel Point has been around since at least 1916, while Santa Cruz Point dates back to 1841. People who live here now call these places by different names: Santa Cruz Point has become Lighthouse Point (a name that appears on no official map) and Soquel Point is known as Pleasure Point (which is actually a half-mile up the coast from the popular 41st Avenue surf spot).

Terrace Point seems to have first appeared around 1889. But the name didn't catch on. The patch of ground that now is the battleground for the city's most contentious zoning squabble was always called "the western lands." The first time its official name crossed the lips of local citizens was in 1989, when developers working for the Wells Fargo Bank resurrected the name and used it to promote their ill-fated first project.

The detailed drawing that accompanies the present project may or may not be legally binding--that's for the lawyers to decide.

But given the history of this place, it is certain that the people can have some say in deciding how this idea looks when it moves from map to landscape.

Terrace Point: Sacred Land or Sacred Cow?--a free public forum sponsored by Metro Santa Cruz--takes place Thursday (7:30pm) at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., SC.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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