SANTA CRUZ — As coastal climate change concerns heat up, the issue increasingly has been catalyzing political debate locally.

Looking to make proactive change, Santa Cruz’s sustainability and climate action manager is about eight months into the city’s Resilient Coast Santa Cruz initiative, which looks at and plans for how the effects of sea-level rise will come home to roost along the city’s West Cliff Drive, via worsening coastal storms, flooding and cliff erosion. Under the initiative, the city is working to create the West Cliff Drive Adaptation and Management Plan, a two-year project funded with a $353,677 California Department of Transportation grant matched by the city’s $45,825. Also under the Resilient Coast initiative, the city has a California Coastal Commission $200,000 grant to update its Local Coastal Plan, looking at all city beaches and nearby development.

Traffic barricades line the West Cliff Drive sidewalk to keep pedestrians away from the cliff near Pelton Avenue in 2018. (Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

The city is planning to host the first in a series of introductory community meetings in September or October. In the more immediate future, city Sustainability and Climate Action Manager Tiffany Wise-West has partnered with Santa Cruz City Schools to discourage vehicle idling on campuses and will use Clean Air Day on Oct. 2 as an opportunity to launch the city’s new EcoPass program, offering free bus passes for downtown workers, said Wise-West.

“There is on both of these projects a heavy focus on equity. We are springboarding off of our social vulnerability to climate change assessment that we completed as part of our Climate Plan Adaptation Plan update that was adopted in 2018,” said Wise-West, the Resilient Coast project’s leader. “We’re really trying to understand how coastal change and any of the adaptations, whether they’re policy or infrastructure, could affect under-represented and frontline communities by understanding how might it impact these folks’ livelihoods, where they live, their spiritual and cultural practices along the coast, their ability to access the coast for free and so on.”

Policy and development

Sea levels are projected to rise about 4 inches by 2030 and up to 68 inches in 2100, according to Wise-West. Adaptations to rising sea levels could involve steps such as limiting development in flood zones, requiring safer building codes for coastal construction or moving roads away from vulnerable areas, according to city Resilient Coast information.

At the same time as climate impact planning efforts are underway, city politicians have been debating how best to tackle the issue, while residents raise the alarm about imminent coastal development projects.

Last week, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to delay signing a nonbinding resolution in support of landmark federal Green New Deal resolutions, under House Resolution 109 and Senate Resolution 59, after Councilman Drew Glover made a last-minute move to modify the motion’s language to reintroduce language related to social justice issues and holding multinational corporations and local businesses responsible for their environmental impacts, he said.

“What I’m trying to get at is that we need to have a mental shift in our community, one that starts to put the environment first amongst business interests, amongst development, amongst transportation, so that we can make a serious stance, take serious steps, and have serious accountability to ourselves and the community around climate change and the emergency we face,” Glover said.

Continuing conversation

Due to a packed meeting agenda, the resolution discussion was pushed back until after 10 p.m., when Wise-West was no longer present to weigh in on the proposed ordinance language that she reportedly had eliminated earlier. She said this week that she was preparing to follow up on the issue at the council’s next meeting.

Later in the week, community members raised coastal environmental concerns, among other issues, to the city Planning Commission before the body narrowly voted to support building a new four-story mixed-use condominium project on West Cliff Drive. The project, proposing the conversion of a Dream Inn surface parking lot in place since 1985 into housing and public amenities, would bore down into the beach-area property to construct two levels of subterranean parking, if approved by the City Council at a future meeting.

Sentinel reader Kathy Cheer shared a letter she sent to Wise-West airing concerns about sea-level rise in Santa Cruz, particularly as it related to the condominium project.

“The City Manager and Planning Department should begin working with authorities to deal with power struggle between people and the will of nature,” Cheer wrote.

City resident Julie Phillips told the Planning Commission at its Aug. 15 meeting that it should order that a full-blown environmental impact study for the project, based on the premise that the development “might have a significant adverse impact on the environment.”

“The list we’ve come up with, potentially you’ve been hearing it from everyone, is traffic, excavation — a two-story underground garage, you’re removing 58,000 cubic yards of sandstone, across the street from the Dream Inn that literally sits on the beach,” Phillips said in part. “And as many of you know, have you looked at your climate action plan, which is amazing, Resilient Santa Cruz, the climate action plan for the city of Santa Cruz, is amazing. Some of the statements in it are that you have to be planning for the $1 billion impact of rising sea levels. They’re happening faster than any of us predicted.”

Local long-time geologist Gary Griggs was called in to review project developer Ensemble’s geotechnical study on digging into the dense underlying Purisima bedrock.

“Based on the: 1] strength of the Purisima Formation from site borings as well as its stability along the nearby coastal bluffs; 2] the lack of bluff failure in his location during the severe 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake; 3] the protection of the bluff fronting the Dream Inn and to either side by a combination of concrete walls and concrete piers; 4] the distance from the bluff edge (much of which is armored with concrete) to the area of excavation for the proposed project (150 feet inland at its closest point), and 5] similar excavation in the Purisima Formation, there should be no impact of the excavation proposed for the project on the nearby coastal bluff,” Griggs’ October 2018 report concluded.