In the News

Hearing set for vote on water expansion plan at UC Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/6/11

SANTA CRUZ - A local agency overseeing local water rules is moving forward with a controversial decision that could lead to the expansion of UC Santa Cruz.

The decision to set a Dec. 7 hearing on whether the city of Santa Cruz can expand its water services area could accelerate what is already a vociferous debate about the university's future. If the plan goes through - and there are several hurdles to clear before that becomes a reality - the university would have clearance to develop a 374-acre area of campus, adding as many as 3,000 students in the process.

Local Agency Formation Commission Executive Director Pat McCormick said the university and the city wanted to move forward with the hearing, even though two pending court cases could upend any decision. The hearing was scheduled for Dec. 7.

"We agree with LAFCO's staff report. There seems to be no reason to not schedule the public hearing," said Jim Burns, a UCSC spokesman.

The commission made clear that it wants to give the public a chance to weigh in, and is looking at expanding the time set aside for the hearing. In addition, LAFCO say it will release a recommendation on the issue Nov. 15, three weeks before the hearing.

Environmental lawyer Gary Patton, an attorney for the Community Water Coalition, did not oppose the decision to set a hearing.

"This looks like a very fair process," Patton said.

The two lawsuits - one which focuses on a key procedural issue and one that challenges an environmental impact statement - both were turned aside by a local judge. But Patton said he expects to win an appeal, and prefers a ruling before LAFCO's hearing.

However, no court hearing has been scheduled.

Desal Alternatives, a group opposing a proposed Santa Cruz desalination plant, have asked the commission for extra time to make a presentation prior to the vote. The board did not grant the request.

Because any expansion of water service area would further burden the city's historically taxed water system, some argue the university expansion would increase the pressure to build the desal plant. That desalination project is expected to provide hundreds of millions of gallons of water to Santa Cruz' system annually.

Patton said one of the implications of the court case is whether LAFCO can impose conditions on the city should it approve the water plan.

One condition could be that the city must first get approval for the desal plant before providing additional water to UC Santa Cruz, a move that would effectively combine debates over university expansion and the plant.

While the university's expansion plans are on the books, UCSC, like all California colleges and universities, is facing steep budget cuts that could delay any development plans.

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