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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | santa cruz county

Letter to Board of Sups re Planning Public Policy Hearing

March 2011


of the Ventana Chapter
P.O. Box 604, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 • phone (831) 426-4453 • e-mail:

January 19, 2011

Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors

701 Ocean St. 5th Floor

Santa Cruz, CA 95018

Subject: Planning Public Policy Scheduled Hearing Date January 25, 2011


Greetings County Board of Supervisors,

This letter and attached photo document will address the proposed changes to the County Zoning Code adding Section 13.10.235 to Chapter 13.10 “zoning site standards”. The Sierra Club understands that the zoning code (and related subdivision law) are the basis of all land use regulation, and as such, have a primary importance for consideration of environmental impacts and good, forward looking, urban and rural planning.

The attached photo document demonstrates recent errors and questionable policy decisions on the part of the Santa Cruz County Planning Department. We will show how these presented examples are fundamentally related to the ordinance language changes under deliberation.

The meaning of “findings” and “mitigating” or “extenuating circumstances” as they apply to Variances now being presented as “minor exceptions” must address the actual impact of the zoning code changes you are considering. Otherwise, the existing language combined with this current proposal will further promote Exceptions and Variances in general, damaging the environment and neighborhood quality of life.

The examples presented in the addendum to this letter show where exceptions to zoning code standards can lead to unsafe properties, and to development that avoids the environmental protection provisions in the code that Planning continues to assert are not undermined by the proposed ordinance language.

The following quote is from the CEQA Initial Study and the Negative Declaration: “Surrounding land uses would be all of the land uses found in the unincorporated portion of the County.” This statement displays the broad scope of unidentified cumulative impacts in these proposed changes to County Code that your Board is considering.

California Environmental Quality Act

The Initial Study itself is a perfunctory and insincere document. It accomplishes virtually none of the goals required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Your staff produces these Negative Declarations in a pre-prepared format that fails to inform this discussion or accomplish the intent of CEQA to make certain that all possible impacts are addressed and that alternative options for this project are considered. We have some suggestions at the end of this letter.

The fact that this proposed ordinance change will apply to all land parcels, whether or not they are urban or rural, whether or not they are already developed or are wild undeveloped mountain lands or rare coastal prairie, is completely absent from written consideration by the Planning Department in their CEQA Initial Study.

We find this simple fact to be most alarming, and it thoroughly invalidates the Initial Study and Negative Declaration, because the document fails to provide the “full disclosure” that CEQA mandates.

This is exactly the case in regard to the County's Storm Water Management Plan with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and State Water Resources Control Board (State Boards). It also applies to the County's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. The County cannot ignore the fact that increased cumulative roof area from expanded buildings and additions, and more impervious paving, back yard garages and carports, will contribute to more polluted runoff defined in the County SWMP. These “minor exceptions to site standards” in the proposed ordinance changes will increase Storm Water discharges into streets, surface and sub-surface drainage infrastructure and into streams and wetlands in the County, all of which lead to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The County has yet to demonstrate any reductions in water pollution levels as a result of the adoption of their SWMP, therefore the County cannot assert that the mere fact that these permits and plans exist is proof of their effectiveness.

A similar argument can be made concerning the County's claim that their environmental ordinances are unaffected by these zoning ordinances changes. We demonstrate in the addendum to this letter how geologic hazard is overlooked and that the riparian protection ordinance is subject to excessive and systematic exceptions. These exceptions to the ordinance are based upon a “lowest common denominator” standard in which the worst house sites, in regard to compliance with this ordinance, become the example for other houses choosing to build in the setback or otherwise degrade it. When the County begins to enforce these environmental codes then they can begin to legitimately assert that they have some meaning in regard to environmental quality and protection.

All of the examples presented to you, and to the Planning Commission by staff, of situations where parts of this proposed ordinance change might be reasonable, are within the Urban Services Line. This fact alone shows how inadequate this review process has been, since the ordinance applies everywhere, not just within those portions of the County, which are already developed at urban densities.

Planning Process

We understand that County Planning is a complex, difficult and contentions task. It is not our intent to cast aspersions upon individuals involved.

The rigid application of planning and zoning code requirements can be of great frustration to building permit applicants who are told that their desire to add a bedroom requires a hearing before Planning Commission. Good code is hard to write and there will always be situations were the code seems in conflict with a sensible solution. There is no simple answer to this dilemma. It is a major reason we have a Planning Commission to resolve these dilemmas.

One suggestion for reform that has not been considered in this proposal is that the complexity of a specific Variance application should accurately reflect the cost/expense charged by Planning for access to the Variance process. Simple questions should not cost the applicant $3000+ to answer. Planning should recover its legitimate expenses but not over charge people unnecessarily.

Original Subdivision Patterns

The real and oddly unspoken reasons for the complexity of the County Planning and Zoning Code is related to the simple fact that Santa Cruz County was largely subdivided before there was any real consideration of what constituted a sensible building parcel.

Your predecessors in this County's government allowed thousands of absurd and problematic lots to be created a century ago. Many of these lots were built upon, and now these houses are in bad locations, such as the scores of homes slowly falling into the San Lorenzo River.

Many homeowners on these countless sub-standard lots cannot enjoy all the privileges they would otherwise enjoy if they owned imaginary large, flat, roomy building sites, with ample parking, and extensive septic system expansion areas, where they could reasonably continue enlarging their homes and building arrays of charming rented accessory dwelling units.

This however, is the apparent objective of the ill-conceived proposal before you, to weaken the zoning code, and remove the necessity of a Planning Commission public hearing for a Variance from specific Zoning Site Standards. Some parts of this proposal may be reasonable but others are not, and their combined cumulative effect has not been considered at all.

I was once a licensed general building contractor and worked in several California jurisdictions, including Marin County, San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and Los Altos as well as Santa Cruz County. The situation in Santa Cruz County is remarkable when compared with my experience in these other areas. If there is a single reason for this difference, it is the peculiar subdivision patterns in Santa Cruz County.

Inside the Urban Services Line

We, do not think that your Board wishes to further compact together already tightly situated homes.

However these “exceptions to site standards” will result in, more closely spaced, taller houses, with smaller back yards replaced by garages, less space for trees and gardens, less privacy, and more noise disputes between neighbors. Any hope for better storm water management is undermined.

If Planning wants to write code for row-houses like those in San Francisco, they should suggest changes to the codes for multi-unit dwellings, or ask the public if they want to do away with side yards altogether. Every property owner will have simultaneous access to every one of these proposed weaker site standards for each building.

Effect upon environmental protection provisions of the code

A prime example of how the environmental protection portions of the existing code is undermined by the existing Variance process is Code Section 16.30 Riparian Corridor and Wetlands Protection. The Variance provisions in the code state that (insert) “[if] the strict application of the Zoning Ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under identical zoning classification [then a Variance is appropriate.” [See interpretation below]

This “special circumstances” language sets a “lowest common denominator” standard for compliance. This situation holds sway all across the rural areas of this county and renders the Riparian Corridor Ordinance moot and irrelevant in many situations.

In other words, if neighboring houses are only 20 feet from a stream bank, then all expanded, new, or re-built houses seeking their own riparian exception in that vicinity can have the same privilege to invade and nullify the Riparian Corridor Ordinance. This is a continuous process that we have never seen addressed. This has contributed to the extirpation of coho salmon from Santa Cruz County and the “threatened” ESA status of steelhead.

13.10.250 Interpretation [ regarding Variance approval ]

The Zoning Administrator shall be responsible for the interpretation of the provisions of this Chapter for their application to any specific case or situation, interpretation of whether a proposed use is essentially the same as a use allowed in the zone district, or interpretation of the boundary location of a zone district, based on the following guidelines, subject to appeal to the Board of Supervisors pursuant to Chapter 18.10:
(a) In interpreting and applying the provisions of this Chapter, they shall be held to be the minimum requirements for the promotion of the public health, safety, comfort, convenience, and general welfare.

A “minimum requirements” standard does not impress us a good standard for the County's obligation to protect the environment and public health, safety, comfort and general welfare.

The proposal before you for “minor exceptions” does not further weaken this code section in specific language. However in practice, it further undermines environmental standards.

Inserted for reference
13.10.230 Variance Approvals.

(c) 1. That because of special circumstances applicable to the property, including size, shape, topography, location, and surrounding existing structures, the strict application of the Zoning Ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity and under identical zoning classification. [i.e. lowest common denominator]
2. That the granting of such variance will be in harmony with the general intent and purpose of zoning objectives and will not be materially detrimental to public health, safety or welfare or injurious to property or improvements in the vicinity.
3. That the granting of such variance shall not constitute a grant of special privileges inconsistent with the limitations upon other properties in the vicinity and zone in which such is situated.

Code in actual practice in rural mountain areas

To understand the logic of our position, one needs to understand the manner in which constrained mountain parcels are developed.

A mountain parcel will often have several problems such as slope, geology, septic system soils or land slope, road setbacks, driveway turn radius for fire access and so on. The developer, architect or building contractor will “play chess” with the parcel deciding which type of code to seek Exception or Variance from.

Thus if placing the house footprint into the road setback will solve another problem with a different site standard, such as geologic hazard or septic leach field location, then a “minor exception” variance as proposed makes an “undevelopable” parcel suddenly ready for construction without even consideration by the Planning Commission.

This is another example of why the CEQA Negative Declaration itself is non-sense. The true environmental impacts have not even been disclosed or discussed, let alone mitigated.

Ways this code change proposal might be improved

1. This proposal should never apply outside the Urban Services Line.

2. This proposal should not reserve the decision regarding the right of the public to a public hearing to the discretion of the Planning Director. If so, one neighbor speaking up may be denied a hearing; when 10 are speaking up they will be granted a hearing. The proposal as written discriminates against owners of homes in low-density rural areas, where it is virtually always more personally dangerous for residents to object to the development plans of other landowners.

3. This proposal should NEVER apply to undeveloped parcels, newly created sub-division lots OR to any parcels with environmental restrictions such as, sensitive habitats, geologic hazards, riparian corridors or slopes over 30% etc.

4. For areas inside the Urban Services Line, establish an absolute limit upon impermeable surface coverage percentages; this means building roof area plus hard pack parking area vs. open vegetated ground. Thus if the buildings are too tightly packed and there is too much asphalt and other hard surface drainage, then parcels in a defined assessment area of perhaps 2 acres around the proposal, would not be eligible for these “minor exceptions”.

5. No individual building or a development of several+ structures in any zone district should have the benefit of all these exceptions in the same development permit. Otherwise you convert “minor exceptions” into a broad change to site standards in general. The “minor exceptions” become basic code in practice.


These are just a few suggestions for improvement. We do not accept this proposal. We however understand that there are occasions when Planning Code can force useless and expensive reviews to occur. Code is hard to write and administer but that is the job of County Planning and County Environmental Health. There will always be situations when the code, when applied to a specific situation, seems illogical and unnecessary. This is a dilemma of good public administration. Good planning is not easy but it is absolutely necessary for the future of Santa Cruz County.

We have watched a long-term erosion in the sound application of the provisions of the Zoning, Building, and Septic Code. We are very concerned and so should you be, as our elected Board of Supervisors. Santa Cruz County has always prided itself on being an attractive, harmonious and tranquil place to live where people have respect for nature and the environment. This area could quickly change within a few decades into another type of county altogether, something like the Santa Clara Valley or Santa Monica for instance. We are asking you as a Board, as our elected representatives, to demonstrate a restored commitment to the principles upon which the County Code was written. It is not just “a pile of paper”; the code is a commitment to sound planning administration in the public interest.


Kevin Collins,
Santa Cruz County Group, Sierra Club, Ventana Chapter

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