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Bombay Doors

Richard Beale
Robert Scheer

Closing the Doors on Open Space: Bombay planner Richard Beale squats on property where housing will rise if the city can't stop his boss' plans.

Fresno developer has eyes on open space prize

By John Pancherian

THE WIND THAT RUSTLES grass and oak leaves on a hillside at the northwest edge of Santa Cruz could soon be cut off by the roof lines and chimneys of 25 new homes, as plans to develop the Bombay property arrived at the SC City Planning Department on Nov. 10. The plans describe a string of townhouses perched on some of the Westside's most beautiful land--land that the community has voted to leave undeveloped.

To preserve the ocean vistas and meadows on the 246-acre tract, the Santa Cruz City Council is trying to scrape together $3.35 million to buy the property--a fact that has been all but lost in a heated debate over the alternative proposal, which leaves most of the land open but allows the townhouses to go up.

The debate has raged since the Bombay Corporation bought the parcel in 1991. The fight pits Bombay owner Ed Kashian's right to develop the land--a right he cherishes for economic as well as philosophical reasons--against locals who feel strongly that the land must be preserved as Greenbelt.

The first round began in 1992 when Kashian hired Baker and McKenzie, one of the nation's biggest law firms, to sue the city of Santa Cruz. Kashian hoped the lawsuit would help his bargaining position with the city. It was not the first time he'd fought such public passion.

Kashian angered Fresno locals when he worked a deal with the Office Depot chain that resulted in the demolition of the Fresno Farmers Market--a downtown landmark that was to Fresno what the Cooper House was to Santa Cruz.

Three days before the building was closed pending demolition, local citizens gathered at the site and sang "We Shall Overcome" while carrying a coffin as a symbol of mourning over losing the beloved community gathering spot. When the resident merchants received eviction notices, eight of them banded together to bring a lawsuit against Kashian. They lost.

One merchant, who wished to speak anonymously, says Kashian spent as much on legal fees as it would have cost him to accede to the tenants' demands.

"He would rather go to court because he makes a statement," the former tenant says. "Word of mouth among attorneys is 'just don't go up against this guy.' "

Santa Cruz locals are determined not to allow the same thing to happen to what they consider to be a valued piece of their community's Greenbelt.

They made their wishes on the Bombay land known with the passage of Measure O in 1979, then again with Measure I in 1992. Speaking at a public hearing on Oct. 7 of this year, more than 20 citizens demanded that the property be left as it is.

Kashian responds that if locals want open space, they should put their money where their mouth is. "Would I want to use open space and have someone else pay for it? Yes," Kashian says. "But no government or individual has the right to use property without payment."

Green Votes, Greenbacks

STUCK BETWEEN STRONG public opinion and Kashian's legal challenges, the City Council has been forced to move simultaneously in two directions. Two committees have been set up to seek out the money to buy the land, and after the protracted public hearing, the council decided in a 6-1 vote to also allow the 25-unit development plan to move through the zoning process.

According to the agreement, Kashian will donate 200 acres of open space to the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, which would then sell a conservation easement to the state's Wildlife Conservation Board. The sale of the easement--intended partly to protect monarch butterfly habitat--could raise $350,000 toward maintaining the land.

Under the development option, Kashian would build 25 townhouses at the south end of the property atop the bluff just up from the corner of Highway 1 and Western Drive. The area to remain open extends in a rectangle northward toward the university and ends a few hundred yards beyond the end of Meder Street. The developed parcels would total only 12 acres, though the townhouse owners would also have a 30-acre private field, which would remain undeveloped but fenced off. The homes and private field would bisect the property near the southern end, leaving somewhat more than three-quarters of the total area whole and undeveloped.

It was standing-room-only at the Oct. 7 public hearing, where steamed greens leveled blistering attacks at the councilmembers who they feel sold them out by even considering the deal. They believe the council also should respect the community's strong history of supporting the Greenbelt. This history began with the passage of Measure O in 1979.

Voters intended the measure to establish a Greenbelt by identifying certain properties surrounding the city and placing environmental restrictions on new development there for 10 years. Meanwhile, the city was to attempt to raise funds to purchase the identified lands--the Bombay property, Arana Gulch, the Kinzli land and Wavecrest, together with Pogonip and De Laveaga, would make up the Greenbelt.

The city was unable to buy any land before the original Measure O protections expired, so the Greenbelt remained nothing more than an official dream. So citizens showed further support on the 1992 ballot by approving Measure I with a whopping 70 percent of the vote--extending development restrictions for another two years and directing the city to prepare a Greenbelt master plan. That plan contained strategies for buying and maintaining Greenbelt lands and raising the necessary money.

But in 1992, city landowners shot down a $36 property assessment to fill Greenbelt coffers.

The citizenry restated its Greenbelt support in a 1994 poll that found that 75 percent of city voters would be willing to pony up $20 each, and 59 percent would pay as much as $40.

Brant Smith, owner of the local Web-design company Imagesmith, became active in local environmental causes while a student at UCSC and is now involved with the Greenbelt Coalition. "The city should find the money to buy it," Smith says. "Simple as that."

Jeff Ringold of the Friends of the Greenbelt also favors the no-building option. He has spoken with local attorney Jonathan Wittwer and with the San Francisco law firm of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger about opposing the Bombay development.

The planning department will receive public input at a Nov. 18 scoping session about what the city should take into consideration while preparing an environmental impact report.

Withour Rancor

ED KASHIAN IS THE MAN who stirred up this green hornets nest. He purchased the Bombay land for approximately $1.5 million in 1991, one year before the Measure O protection was due to expire. When it was extended in 1992 Kashian sued the city, challenging the agricultural zoning on the land.

In 1994, the council, staring down the barrel of Baker and McKenzie's lawyers, tentatively proposed a deal with Kashian that would have allowed him to build seven homes at the end of Meder Street in exchange for dropping the lawsuit. As part of that deal, the city would have waived around $300,000 in development fees.

The legal dealings are not yet over. Though Kashian lost the suit he brought against the city in 1992, he appealed the decision and the case is now pending in appellate court.

Kashian's position is that the city must either allow some development on the land or purchase it at the "fair market price" of $3.35 million. "The point is, I will not permit nothing to happen," Kashian says.

Responding to critics who say these court battles prove he is ignoring the wishes of the community, Kashian puts forward a property-rights argument. "I respect community wishes a great deal, but the Constitution gives property owners rights," he says. "If the community wants open space, then the community should pay for it. It's easy to say emotionally 'that's my open space, or my beach,' but it's another thing to do it within the context of the law."

Kashian says he was aware of Measure O at the time he bought the land, but since the city had "spent 10 or 12 years trying to enact it and wasn't able to, my understanding was that the Greenbelt property would no longer exist, that the law would no longer exist."

During two telephone interviews, Kashian seemed candid and patient and responded without rancor when presented with opposing views. His voice rang with conviction while he spoke about property owners' rights, and he asked that Santa Cruz judge his development, not him.

"What's in the best interest, that's what the City Council is wrestling with," he says. "I'm sure they'll make the right decision."

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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