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Land War

Santa Cruz County simmers as it awaits development referendums

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As frontier hamlets go, Tubac has always been scrappy. Established as a Spanish garrison in 1752, it was intermittently abandoned and revived in the face of Indian attacks, only to be invaded by easel-wielding artists a few centuries later.

But little Tubac may now be facing its nastiest brawl to date. Still unincorporated, with a population of roughly 2,000, the sleepy community is at the center of a bitter fight over the future of still mostly rural Santa Cruz County.

At issue are two developments that could add more than 9,000 new houses. But projects of that size require amending the county's Comprehensive Land Use Plan--thoroughly revamped just four years ago--to drastically increase housing densities above what those planners envisioned. Critics of altering the plan say it could open the door for more amendment requests and ultimately ravage the county's rural character.

If that weren't complex enough, two of the county's three supervisors have seemingly set sail on their own course. The board majority ignored noisy public opposition--and recommendations from its own planning and zoning commission--to approve amendments for the Las Mesas and Sopori Ranch developments. Soon after that ugly December meeting, outraged detractors drummed up enough petition signatures to force November referendums on both projects.

Now licking its wounds from those nasty skirmishes, the county simmers and awaits the autumn vote.

To petition-passers such as Ellie Kurtz, the referendum means nothing less than the resurrection of democracy in Santa Cruz County. "And I really believe it will pass," she says, "because we only had two weeks to get signatures, and we were told that we could never do it. But we gathered more than 2,000 from all over the county."

She attributes much of that success to anger at Supervisors Manny Ruiz and Robert Damon, who overrode widespread sentiment and the recommendation of the commission they helped appoint. "Those supervisors were just so damn arrogant," Kurtz says. "The whole democratic process was totally forgotten."

But Ruiz says he actually looks forward to the twin referendums--despite the extra cost to taxpayers--because he thinks it will provide "a chance for cooler heads to prevail."

He points out that the county's comprehensive plan, even amended, doesn't automatically mean all those homes would all be built, since the developer would still need board approval for rezoning, to significantly hike the current limit of one home per acre.

Ruiz also maintains that the developments would be good for Santa Cruz County, since they'd cover their own infrastructure costs, such as roads, sewer and water (a claim scoffed at by critics). Should the amendments be defeated, he warns, all those deal-sweeteners would vanish. Then the area could be developed--per the comprehensive plan--with septic tanks rather than sewers, and individual wells instead of a water plant promised by the developer, Sopori 12,500 Investors LLC.

"If you've got 4,000 people with wells, who knows what they do with the water?" Ruiz says. "This way, it would be monitored and controlled."

Regardless, he contends that the land won't even be fully developed for years--even if the referendums fail. "Are these homes going to come on all at once?" says Ruiz. "I don't think so."

Ultimately, he blames a small crowd of angry citizens for turning board hearings into hollering matches. "How can we make a decision when everybody in there is so adamant against it that they don't listen to what's being said?"

But therein lies the point, says Supervisor John Maynard, who represents the Tubac area and was the sole board vote against both amendments. "I followed the recommendation of the planning and zoning commission, and I listened to the people that I represent," he says. "I believe we should follow our county's comprehensive land-use plan."

Maynard also questions Sopori's infrastructure promises, dismissing them as "a ploy by developers to drastically exceed the densities that were allowed by the comprehensive plan."

Meanwhile, some suggest that this battle is really driven by class issues, between the less-affluent Nogales area (represented by Ruiz) and largely prosperous Tubac; according to a recent article in The New York Times, 25 percent of Tubac-area homes are getaways for folks living somewhere else.

To Hugh Holub, opposing the high-density developments is plain elitist. An attorney, Holub represents the 1,200-home Las Mesas project. "The comprehensive plan says that everything north of Tubac should be one home per four acres," he says. "But I see that as very limiting to what we could do in the northern part of the county. For instance, no affordable housing would be allowed."

At current densities, "the lots start at around $240,000, and the homes on those lots are a million dollars plus," he says. In other words, they're beyond "what mainstream families could afford. The plan as it stands now is a very exclusive kind of land use."

But to local architect and referendum supporter Bruce Pheneger, Holub's claim is little more than propaganda.

"I've done housing through all economic stratas," Pheneger says. "And when I hear someone talk about 'workforce housing,' or 'affordable housing,' or any of those pejorative terms, quite frankly, I find it extremely racist. The Supreme Court said a long time ago that separate but equal is not equal.

"If you are truly going to build housing for people, then you need to integrate that housing within the entire development. You can't draw a little circle on a site plan (and say), 'OK, all the poor people are going to live here, and all the gated communities are going to be over here."

This feud may boil down to righteous indignation, by supervisors who felt under attack, and citizens who felt ignored. "The referendum is about development," says Lynn Carey, a Tumacácori real estate agent who led the petition drive. "But that wasn't really the main thing.

"The main thing was that the citizens of Santa Cruz County spent several years crafting a comprehensive plan, which was unanimously approved by this same Board of Supervisors. Then the supervisors voted 2-to-1 to amend that plan. And that followed extensive public hearings where 99 percent of the people who spoke voiced their opposition to the amendments.

"There's a sense among the voters," says Carey, "that they weren't listened to at all."

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