Arana Gulch bike path nears approval
By Curtis Cartier
ON A SUNLIT winter’s day following a long and rainy week, Jean Brocklebank and Michael Lewis trudge through the soggy soil and tall grasses of Arana Gulch in Santa Cruz, talking about their group’s March 11 hearing before the California Coastal Commission. Suddenly Brocklebank stops and lays down the situation as she, and doubtless other members of the Friends of Arana Gulch, sees it. “This not a case of environmentalists versus environmentalists,” she says.
To Brocklebank, the 15-year fight over whether planners with the city of Santa Cruz have the right to build a 3,200-foot-long bicycle and wheelchair path in the city-owned greenbelt is much more complicated than that. Plus, she insists, “Bicyclists are not environmentalists. They’re usually just concerned with having places to ride.”
Brocklebank and Lewis are the de facto leaders of Friends of Arana Gulch and perhaps the most familiar faces of opposition to the city’s long-delayed plan to connect Brommer Street on the east side of town with Broadway on the west. Supporters of the paved path call the couple obstructionists, pure and simple. And the two don’t quibble, describing themselves on their website as “The Enviromeddlin’ Duo: speed bumps in the path of progress.”
At the center of their objections is the well-being of the Santa Cruz tarplant, a threatened native plant species that flowers in bright blossoms of yellow once plentiful throughout this area’s coastal prairies. At this point, however, the plan has been unanimously passed by the Santa Cruz City Council, held up by the California Appellate Court, endorsed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, just last week, approved by California Coastal Commission staff. Now, with one hurdle left to pass when the Coastal Commission itself meets next week to vote on approval of the plan, the “enviromeddlers” are bracing for defeat.
Supporters, on the other hand, are rejoicing.
“The people of Santa Cruz have waited far too long for this project to be built,” says path advocate Charlie Dixon, citing the 9-to-1 ratio of supporting vs. objecting letters sent to Commission headquarters. “Every single objection that has been raised to the path has been addressed. Building it will be a win for bicyclists, a win for the handicapped, a win for the tarplant and a win for the environment.”
Soon after the city purchased the plot from the Kinzli family in 1994, the first plan to build a bicycle path was proposed. It fizzled because it lacked an arrangement to protect the tarplant. Since then, city planners have bundled the path plans with a comprehensive tarplant management plan that includes mowing invasive grasses and scheduling regular monitoring by botanists.
Supporters now include not only cyclists, who have long supported an alternative east–west route across town that avoids Soquel Avenue and the Yacht Harbor, but also disabled residents—who are anticipating finally having access to one of the city’s four greenbelts—as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists. The opinion written by the federal government’s biologists concludes that the revamped project won’t harm the plant.
Brocklebank, though, isn’t buying it. “Would you compromise the safety of your children?” she asks when questioned whether she would compromise on the bike path, given the mitigation plan. She and Lewis point to quotes from the opinion like “construction of the paved path could result in injury or death of individual Santa Cruz Tarplants.”
Douglass Cooper, a senior wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife and one of the opinion’s authors, says Brocklebank is pulling the information out of context. He maintains that threats to the plant will be negligible and some good could even come of the project. “Ultimately, we believe that the project will benefit the tarplant in the long term because of the mitigation plan,” he says.
Brocklebank’s group, along with supporters of the project, will no doubt be in attendance at the upcoming California Coastal Commission meeting. Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin says he’s “confident” the path will be approved. Dixon is guardedly optimistic.
“I don’t want to start celebrating just yet,” says Dixon. “After this long you learn that anything can still happen.”