Coastal prairie

Pogonip: Imperiled, Once Again

I will post a series of notes here about the quickly emerging proposal to move the Homeless Garden Project to the centerpiece meadow at Pogonip Greenbelt. Their originally designated place, near the entrance to the open space at Golf Club Drive, has lead contamination that the City is going to clean up, at taxpayers’ expense. But, sensing an opportunity to take Center Stage, Homeless Garden proponents and their friends in High Places in the City, are now pushing putting a 10-acre farm, complete with 8′ fences, parking, etc., right smack in the middle of the big meadow, Santa Cruz’ last Big Meadow.


9/29/2021

Thanks to all who have already stepped up to help protect Pogonip’s beautiful Main Meadow. We will need your continued help in the months ahead to protect our Greenbelt. In the few short weeks since the announcement of a proposed plan to locate the Homeless Garden Project on the Main Meadow, much has been accomplished:

Many of you submitted excellent comments in writing and verbally to the Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council raising a wide range of important concerns

Groups including the Sierra Club, the Santa Cruz Bird Club, and the California Native Plants Society, as well as several local scientists, submitted detailed comments citing significant environmental issues·       A new group called Friends of the Greenbelt (FOG) has formed

A land use and CEQA attorney has been retained to ensure a full public environmental review process is conducted if the project moves forward 

As expected, last night the City Council approved the staff recommendation to allocate $100,000 in city budget funds to continue analyzing the potential to develop a 9.5 acre farm in the Main Meadow, including 6000 square feet of buildings, an expanded road, and other infrastructure- all to support a greatly expanded footprint for the Homeless Garden Project. 

The Council directed staff to also continue to assess the feasibility of the Homeless Garden Project moving to its already approved location, the lower meadow site near Golf Club Drive where lead contamination from historic skeet shooting was discovered. Notably, at the Council meeting last night, city staff confirmed that 4.5 acres of the Golf Club Drive site is not contaminated. This represents an area that is an acre larger than the Homeless Garden Project’s current site on the Westside. In other words, the Homeless Garden Project could proceed with plans to move to their already approved site close to Golf Club Drive and still grow the size of their operation. This option would preserve the Main Meadows as required by the Pogonip Master Plan. 

The City plans to host outreach meetings to gather community input in November and January. 

What’s next and how can you help? 

Please join Friends of the Greenbelt! If you want to become a member, just send me a note and I’ll add you to the roster. There’s no additional commitment and we won’t share your name. In the future we will share opportunities for public comment as the process moves forward. We would also like to host field trips, gatherings, and we may share other greenbelt information to share via that group.  

Tell your friends. Everyone in this community supports the mission of the Homeless Garden Project and many may not realize the significance of developing one of our last coastal prairie meadows and ignoring adopted city plans and policies designed to protect habitat and biodiversity. Talk to your friends about why it is so important that the Homeless Garden Project develop on a different site and not in the heart of the Greenbelt. Tell your friends to join Friends of the Greenbelt. 

Talk to city officials and the Homeless Garden Project. Make time to talk as directly as you can to our representatives- the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and the City Council and to the Homeless Garden Project Board of Directors. Share your concerns and urge them to pursue an alternative site to the Main Meadow of Pogonip. 

We have made a big difference already and together will continue building the momentum necessary to give the Upper Main Meadow the strong voice that it needs if it is to remain such a beautiful, wildlife friendly place for future generations.


9/26/21

Hi Friends- Exciting news! Our newly founded Friends of the Greenbelt has retained an attorney to represent us and strengthen our opposition to the Poor Idea to consider placing a 10 acre private farm in the middle of the centerpiece of our beautiful greenbelt.


Letters Needed for Upcoming City Council Meeting (9/28)

Please consider writing a letter/email/note and commit to asking 5-10 others to do the same…before this Friday September 24…to ensure that the letters are read by councilmembers before the meeting. Now is an important time to act.

The City Council will decide at its upcoming September 28th meeting whether or not to move forward with the next step of placing a 10-acre private farm in the middle of the main meadow at Pogonip. Email the Council at: citycouncil@cityofsantacruz.com the meeting is set to begin at 11 a.m. on this coming Tuesday Sept 28, but the agenda has not been posted publicly and would be at this site

Many people do not know…the much-beloved Homeless Garden Project was slated to get tucked into the corner of the Pogonip greenbelt near the entrance to Golf Club Drive (aka “Lower Main Meadow’), but they found lead from a historic skeet shooting range there, so…in a hurry to get the farm moved to the Pogonip from its long-time Westside home (where BTW they are welcome to stay) … instead of waiting for the City to clean up the lead … they are pushing for a short-term solution, and a greatly expanded farm in the middle of the vast and beautiful meadow (aka ‘Upper Main Meadow’) that is the centerpiece of our greenbelt: right in front of the historic clubhouse.

This new 10-acre farm will be fenced- excluding the public and wildlife- and the ancient carbon-rich prairie soils will be tilled, releasing lots carbon to the atmosphere. The road to that part of the greenbelt will be widened, utilities sent up the hill, many buildings constructed, parking lots, lights, increased fire danger and more difficult to protect infrastructure, further into our wildlands.

This wild place, reachable on foot, bike, etc., by many of all ages, incomes, and situations and a place of peaceful solace for humans and non-humans alike, will be forever changed. The view of the meadow is woven into our psyches. It is how we feel home. Others, many generations from now, should be able to experience that feeling. Coyotes and hawks, endangered beetles and bats, they have already lost so many of their places.

Below, I’ve placed some of the talking points others have used. If you think of others, please let me know.
Also, please send me a copy of what you send…if you also give me your permission, I’ll post the letters on a publicly available website to illustrate the breadth, determination, love, and thoughtfulness of the opposition.

We have already made great strides- they thought that this would be easier. Together, we can turn this around…find the Homeless Garden Project a great new home and save the heart of the Pogonip at the same time.

Let me know how I can help. – Grey
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Here are some talking points to make in your note to the City Council:

The process has not been transparent: the public has had insufficient notice of the public process.    Suggestion: better notify the public about this process, give us more time to comment, put up bright flagging and ‘story poles’ for us to see the dimensions of what is being considered.

The City shouldn’t waste funding: there are other priorities for Parks    Suggestion: as outlined in the recent Parks Master Plan, the City should focus on priorities such as more accessible playground for children, addressing trail erosion, creating habitat conservation and restoration plans, restoring habitats and removing invasive species.

The City already spent a lot of time and paid a lot of money to for the Pogonip Master Plan as well as for the public process and environmental review of that Plan. Hundreds wrote to protect this meadow at that time. The environmental review clearly stated that it was infeasible to put the Homeless Garden Project in this location because of many serious constraints. Suggestion: none of the previous constraining conditions of the Upper Main Meadow could have changed; if anything, those constraints have increased with time.

The Upper Main Meadow is critical habitat for the Federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, habitat for many protected raptors and songbirds, contains rare mima mounds, is covered with threatened coastal terrace prairie, and has extensive wetlands protected by the State and Federal governments. These constraints are insurmountable and damaging these resources is not what Santa Cruzans should do with their greenbelt lands. The City has been unable to mitigate for the damages to endangered species at Arana Gulch, so how do we know they could at this location?

Continuing the process to consider this project will create rifts in our community when we have more constructive things we can do together.

The expansive, open Upper Main Meadow is an important visual resource, with views that define Santa Cruz.

There are no other places for such peaceful passive recreation in close proximity to the City. This meadow is irreplaceable in that way.

This proposal places infrastructure further into the wildlands, increasing fire danger, increasing damage to natural systems from toxic burning buildings, and making it harder for firefighters to protect the lives and property at that location.

Tilling ancient grassland soils irreparably releases greenhouse gasses that cannot be captured in those soils in the original amounts, ever again.

The site would be transferred from current public recreational use to private agriculture use, fenced from the public.  

The funding used to purchase the property was provided by the California Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Conservation Act of 1988, allowed State Parks disseminate funding to the City of Santa Cruz with its application. The City’s application asked the state to purchase 614 acres which “consists of six open grass areas” and 60% forest, and including a sycamore riparian forest. This application does not include provision for developing the property into private agricultural endeavors such as the Homeless Garden Project:

We have been provided no evidence that the Homeless Garden Project has to move anywhere, any time soon. We have also seen no evidence that they need more space to serve more homeless people.

There are better, viable alternatives: they aren’t getting ‘kicked off’ of the Natural Bridges location they currently occupy and they might very well negotiate for a very long term mutually beneficial solution at that location with Ron Swenson’s proposed Ecovillage which is still under serious consideration; the Lower Main Meadow (once cleaned up, which the City has committed to doing), and; other sites closer to town that are being redeveloped and/or have abandoned businesses. These alternatives will allow the Homeless Garden Project a quicker solution.

Here’s my letter, sent 9/24:

Dear Council,

I write to urge you to halt the process of funding and analyzing the potential to move the Homeless Garden Project farm, buildings and infrastructure to a new site in and around the Upper Main Meadow in the City’s precious greenbelt public park, the Pogonip.

There are many, many already obvious reasons that the Upper Main Meadow is not suitable for the proposed development, so spending further public resources on this exploration is not a good idea. Recently, the City spent considerable resources writing, reviewing, and gaining public input into a Parks Master Plan, which identifies many pressing priorities for Parks – this proposed relocation was not one of those priorities. In addition, not long ago, the City invested public resources into the Pogonip Master Planning process: after expensive analysis and extensive consideration, the resulting plan clearly states that it was infeasible to place the Homeless Garden Project farm and infrastructure in the Upper Main Meadow. Common sense and an honest conversation with any objective and knowledgeable planner would lead to the conclusion that none of the constraints identified previously would have changed by this time. At time of the Pogonip Master Planning process, the vast majority of the public opposed developing the main meadow. Given the scope and foreseeable impacts of the project, reconsideration for this use of the Upper Main Meadow would most reasonably require analysis, preparation, presentation, and public process of a major amendment to the Pogonip Master Plan, a lengthy and costly proposition that would have little chance of success while spending and very limited and considerable public resources that should be aimed at already defined City priorities. You must ask how to spend resources most wisely to benefit the largest number or most important to serve people.

And yet, you do not have a choice in this matter. The State funding for the purchase of Pogonip requires that the property be used as a public park, maintained as open space for recreation and conservation values. Perhaps because of kindness or oversight, this issue was not publicly- or well-visited during prior consideration of the placement of the Homeless Garden Project at the Pogonip. However, be assured that, should you decide to do anything but stop this process at your 9/28 meeting, the issue will now be expertly explored, which could endanger the currently slated Pogonip location of the Homeless Garden Project while placing the City in a higher level of scrutiny by State oversight overall for its use and management of the property.

The visual and recreational values of the Upper Main Meadow are paramount. This meadow is the core of what is ‘open’ about this open space. The vistas afforded from and across this beautiful meadow have long been important to the people of Santa Cruz and our many guests. The views relax us, nourishing our souls. Many generations have enjoyed these vistas, their eyes wandering across these open spaces, glimpsing pouncing coyotes, following gliding hawks. Such views are becoming scarcer by the decade, and Santa Cruzans fight hard each time one is threatened. Future generations should be able to enjoy the same views, which increase the value of our property. I and many others enjoy passive recreation. As the recent Parks Master Plan documented, walking and hiking are the predominant recreational activities of Santa Cruzans. These activities entail passive, peaceful observation of nature. Developing the proposed 6-city-block-sized farm in the middle of this meadow would irreparably damage core visual and recreational values of the Pogonip. Developing the thousands of square feet of buildings, parking lots, night lighting, and widened roads would destroy the overall feeling of this place, and would markedly reduce the peacefulness that we now enjoy there. Peacefulness, the ability to let our eyes relax across large landscapes, and passive observation of nature – these are well-documented aspects of raising healthy children and leading healthy lives. The ability to pursue such health and well being at the Pogonip, in such close proximity to so many, is critically important for all of Santa Cruz’ citizens. Not all citizens can afford to get in their cars and travel to more distant locations for such healing.

 The natural constraints of the proposed site have been well documented by the City, using public resources, at a prior time – they are considerable. The site is covered by coastal prairie, one of the top 10 most endangered ecosystems in the United States, having been largely destroyed by previous development including much of Santa Cruz. This prairie is habitat for a number of protected animals including the Federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, which is critically imperiled and for which the City Parks Department recently declined to cooperate with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s offer to fund and implement pressing restoration activities. There are also species of protected songbirds, hawks and owls that use the meadow for foraging and may nest in the vicinity of the proposed project. I am trained to recognize such resources, and much of the proposed farm site contains jurisdictional wetlands- wet meadow habitat that meets the criteria under Federal and State protection laws. To effectively delineate the wetlands at this site would require extensive monitoring of the level of soils saturation through ‘normal’ rainfall years: this could take years of monitoring given the current predictions of the continuation of drought this winter. Should the City move forward consideration of converting this site to agriculture, the City would need to demonstrate the feasibility of mitigating impacts to wetlands and coastal prairie habitats. As a professional restoration ecologist familiar with that potential, I am notifying you that I am not aware of appropriate sites for mitigation (replacement in kind at any ratio) of the destruction of coastal prairie wetlands of this sort. And, I am not aware of science that would support the feasibility of coastal prairie restoration. In addition, tilling ancient grasslands, which hold vast quantities of soil carbon, releases much of that carbon into the atmosphere. This impact would require analysis and mitigation; research has demonstrated that it is not feasible to replace that same amount of carbon through restoration.

As decision makers, you are obviously in a difficult situation. The City has a history of poor treatment of the Homeless Garden Project. It first sold the Pelton Street property out from under the HGP for only $2 million, funding long since spent and an amount that pales to what the City and HGP are now spending on this process. That embarrassing situation led to the promises by a small group of powerful decision makers to ‘make good’ for the HGP by promising them City-owned land and a ‘permanent’ home. Even such promises are obviously empty as they can be contested in a democracy with changing popular ideas and rules about sole-source contracting, especially on public trust lands to private organizations. Over the many ensuing years, it is not evident that City planners have worked at all with the property owner and HGP to secure a development plan at the current site that would allow the Project to remain where it is. Most recently, the City agreed to a long-term lease to the Homeless Garden Project at the ‘lower main meadow’ at the Pogonip but discovered it was offering a site with some soil toxicity issues. Santa Cruzans have long supported both the Homeless Garden Project and environmental conservation. We don’t want to have to make a choice between the two. The choice before you allows you to stop the division that will grow and grow quickly in our community about this difficult situation. Already, in opening this process with little and very poor public notification, the City has sown the seeds of unhappiness: we are all torn.

And yet, the choice you are contemplating is unwarranted and unnecessarily dramatic: there is no case for the need and there are clear alternatives. As a professional adult educator, I suggest that we have been presented no evidence of a need to expand the acreage of agriculture for the HGP to meet its mission. Indeed, the kind of help they offer their target populations is not acreage-based; they have long operated with small acreage, as have similar projects around the world. If they have training, therapy, or learning objectives and programs to support larger acreage, the documents to support those are not in public evidence. Moreover, the HGP has presented no evidence of the rumored/suggested pressure from donors for a short-term or Pogonip-based solution. And still, City Parks staff have said the City will clean up the previously slated Pogonip location for the HGP. Even if that site turns out to be infeasible, neither the City nor the HGP  has presented a case supporting the need for the Project to move from the site that they currently occupy; in contrast, the owner actively advertises their desire to have such uses at that site in perpetuity and in close partnership with the eventual homeowners there- guaranteeing the kinds of interactions the HGP advertises as essential to their programs. If none of the aforementioned alternatives work, the need for redevelopment of parcels in and around downtown is increasingly obvious and should be explored as a location for such a farm…on riverine soils in an area that is otherwise unwise to develop housing and businesses due to earthquake liquifaction and periodic flooding concerns.

I urge you to stop this now, for the good of our community and for the wildlife – the non-human creatures that do not have voices that you can hear. Let us work together to find a real solution to help the Homeless Garden Project to meet its goals. And, let us respect our previous processes for planning and funding at the Pogonip. If not, I will do everything in my power to help to rally a growing network of smart and resourceful people to stop this ill-advised scheme.

Many thanks,

Grey

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