In the News

Editorial: As We See It: Don't undo city-UCSC agreement

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 12/7/11

It would be a major step backward if the issues that once divided the city of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz were rekindled.

For decades, the city and the campus existed as, at best, distant neighbors, whose backyard boundary disputes never seemed settled.

Although the university, which was invited to Santa Cruz nearly half a century ago and which by state law retains autonomy in determining its future plans, has brought numerous benefits to the city and county, the relationship has often soured.

When residents discovered the campus was going to grow beyond its initial size and that more students would make more demands on the local infrastructure, the cry went out for the city to constrain the university.

So the squabbling became entrenched -- until 2008, when a new breed of political leadership emerged in the city and a new chancellor took over on the hill.

Mayor Ryan Coonerty and UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal announced that year that for the first time, the university, city and county were going to stay out of court and work together in planning for future housing needs, the impacts of traffic -- and water use.

Since then, as UCSC has continued to add students, both the city and university agree that traffic has dropped at and around the university; the two sides have also worked together to address housing issues such as overcrowding and unsafe conditions, along with unruly parties. And, water conservation has increased on the university, while the city has looked to build a desalination plant for future emergency needs.

But not everyone agreed that the time for disagreeing was over. Opposition coalesced that said the city didn't have enough water to supply future university growth. Others continued to oppose UCSC getting bigger, even though the demand statewide for entrance to ever more costly public higher education has increased tremendously.

This continuation of a long dispute will take another turn today when applications by the university and the city for extended water and sewer service to the northern portion of the UCSC campus will be considered by the Local Agency Formation Commission, which has jurisdiction over such boundary matters. The area in question is where the university hopes to provide for some of the increased number of students to be housed on campus -- a key component called for in the agreement with the city.

Amid the opposition to the university's growth plans -- and, in effect, to the 2008 agreement -- LAFCO has recommended some conditions of approval UCSC maintains are unacceptable.

One requirement proposed by LAFCO staff is that UCSC return to the agency for another hearing if campus growth exceeds the currently agreed-upon limit of 19,500 students.

This is a nonstarter for UCSC, which has always argued that any such constraints are limited by its state mandate -- and that furthermore, there already is an agreement in place with the city to extend the water service.

Blumenthal has gone so far as to warn that if LAFCO proceeds with the conditions -- another would require the city and university to pursue annexation of any new buildings within two years of occupation -- then UCSC may withdraw its application. This in turn would seriously jeopardize the 2008 agreement -- and, Blumenthal goes on to warn, could also lead to a lawsuit.

Why is this important? Because if the university draws back from the agreement and decides it won't house the additional students on campus, then the impacts on traffic and housing would start up again. As Coonerty told the Sentinel, requiring the university to seek LAFCO approval for future growth is a "deal killer."

Critics of university growth say nothing in the conditions would prevent UCSC from housing more students elsewhere on campus.

Maybe not. But there's something else at stake here -- issues such as trust and cooperation. Going back to the era of distrust and enmity won't stop UCSC from adding students -- and won't solve Santa Cruz's water problems.

The 2008 city-university agreement showed that public entities can coexist to the mutual benefit of both. That's good government. LAFCO should approve the applications and drop the staff's recommended conditions.

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