Former Santa Cruz County 2nd District Supervisor Ellen Pirie generously agreed to a conversation with Seb Frey (editor of Aptos Community News), to share her recollections and insights into the development of the new Aptos Village plan, as well as the Santa Cruz Rail Corridor.
The conversation was recorded via Skype, and is available here for you to listen to and enjoy. The conversation was lengthy and covered a lot of ground, touching on a number of topics, which are detailed here in this article. The first portion of the audio discusses the Aptos Village plan, and the portion about the rail corridor beings at about the 17:50 mark.
Listen to the Conversation
Aptos Village Discussion
According to Pirie, the original Aptos Village plan was adopted around 1977. The vacant portion of the Village is oddly configured, and the 8-acre site was owned by several different parties. One of the challenges in getting it redeveloped was that nobody wanted to be stuck with the cost of putting in the infrastructure.
Ellen recalled that in 2001, an out-of-area developer approached the county with the idea to build a Costco-like building on the vacant land, which according to the developer, would comply with then-existing Aptos Village plan. Ellen says that turned out not to be true, but it opened her eyes and spurred her to review the plan and take a fresh look at it, so we wouldn’t end up with anything like a Costco in that space.
She proposed to the county Board of Supervisors that we take another look at the Aptos Village plan. They authorized spending some money to do a public “visioning process” where the community could come together in a number of meetings and draw out what they wanted to see there.
Ellen remembers that a lot of the community got involved, with around 50-75 people at each meeting. There were “a ton of people” working on it, she said, and it was “very much a public process”. This process was run by consultants that the county hired to put what folks in the community envisioned down on paper. They started with the prior plan, and asked the public what they’d like to see in a new Village.
Today, there is a great deal of controversy about the work that went into designing and planning the new Aptos Village. Some members of the community today have alleged that the process was not public, and few meetings were held. According to Pirie, there were “way more than 20” meetings, that these went on “almost constantly” for about 10 years. There were meetings “all the time” – and all were public, although she mentioned that some groups would have smaller meetings to discuss, for example, how the rail line would be incorporated, or what the buildings would look like. These meetings, however, were also open to the public. Meetings were held at the fire station, Valencia school, some were at the Seacliff Inn, and in other venues as well.
One concern area residents have today is, of course, the traffic impacts of a much denser use of the Village space. According to Pirie, traffic was then too a big concern, and an important issue for people. They had third party traffic studies (performed by paid, outside consultants, not county staff) done as part of this process – but she noted that early in her term, she was very skeptical of traffic studies. Over time, she grew to have more confidence in what the traffic engineers were saying. According to the studies which were performed, Aptos Village traffic will actually be better with the improvements. Of course, it will never be good at certain times of day, but at the least, should not be any worse that it is presently.
Water has been an important issue for a long time but while the plan was being worked on we weren’t in a drought that has now put it in the forefront of the public’s mind. Nevertheless, the County required pervious surfaces and stormwater retention onsite to increase groundwater percolation. The County and Soquel Creek Water District also required low flow water fixtures and water offsets. Ellen’s understanding is that Barry Swenson Builder, the project developer, started getting their water offsets 10 years ago.
Some in the community today would prefer that Aptos Village today remain largely unchanged – a quiet, open space. Ellen discussed the possibility of alternative uses for the property, for example, parkland. She noted that the problem with that is that the land was all privately owned. There was no public money to just buy the land and change the zoning to build a park. Consequently, creating a park wasn’t really on the radar. Rather, she recalled that there was strongest interest in restoring the Village as a commercial and residential center, the heart of Aptos.
Barry Swenson Builder
In recent public meetings, it has been alleged by some that Barry Swenson Builder has been shown special favor by the Board of Supervisors and the Santa Cruz County planning department. Pirie said flatly that the developer was not allowed to cut corners or given special exemptions. According to Pirie, it has been an “extremely difficult process” for Barry Swenson Builder – one that was very time consuming and expensive. Regarding these allegations, Pirie said, “that’s just not the case” that they got off easy, and, “the county has tortured them just like they torture everyone else.”
In a subsequent discussion, Ellen also noted how cool it would be to have a bike and pedestrian trail running through Aptos Village, connecting the greater community to the Village and to Nisene Marks park.
Santa Cruz Rail Corridor Discussion
Pirie also shared her perspective on the Santa Cruz rail corridor. She recounts that talk about redeveloping the rail line had been going on a long time. From the start of her term, Ellen was very enthusiastic about the prospect of acquiring the rail line and putting it to better use. She recalls that it was a very long, difficult process, and that Union Pacific was a difficult negotiating partner. It “probably was almost 20 years” from the time someone first got the idea to acquire the corridor, but the serious negotiations went on 10 years.
Early Support for the Project
There were a lot of early supporters, with a lot of interest in Santa Cruz in particular. Some supporters were “the train people” some were “the bike people,” but everyone shared the idea that it was an incredible asset for the county. There was a feeling that we can’t lose it, that if it were in private ownership, it could be sold or divided up. When they started negotiating the deal with Union Pacific, there were still trains running up to the Davenport cement plant. When the plant shut down it made a deal easier to negotiate, but more urgent to get it done.
Ellen stated that she believes that train service isn’t practical, and she favors removing the tracks and building a pedestrian and bicycle trail. She points out that trains are very expensive and difficult to operate, and you need a dense population for successful passenger rail service. There are other obstacles too, like the weight of rails and the geometry of the track. But the biggest problem, according to Pirie, is that trains are expensive and that big cities struggle to maintain them – and that for a small town, it’s virtually impossible.
When the deal was negotiated, Ellen thought the most important thing was to first secure the rail line, and then we could argue about how to use it afterwards. Everyone was together at the beginning, and were content with putting off the discussion about what we do with it until later.
Part of the money to buy the corridor was California Proposition 116 money, but some of it was obtained from grants. Proposition 116 does specify that any funds obtained must be used for passenger rail service. However, Pirie was careful to note that recipients of Proposition 116 funds are not required run passenger rail if it is not economically feasible.
The Santa Cruz RTC (Regional Transportation Commission) had performed a passenger rail feasibility study in late 1990’s which determined that every passenger would have to be underwritten by 60-70 dollars of public money, which “obviously wouldn’t work.” However, the definition of passenger rail is broad. The Train to Christmastown qualifies as passenger rail service, for example.
If, however, the operators of the Train to Christmastown decide they want to cease operation, and there isn’t any other economically viable train proposal out there, the line can be “rail banked.” This is a Federal process, which allows communities to decide that while they can’t support a train today, they may want to in the future, and can save the corridor for that purpose. By “rail banking” the line, the easements and rights-of-way are protected and preserved. Much of the corridor land owned by the Santa Cruz RTC, but much is only an easement for transportation. With rail banking, we could remove the rail and keep the space, as well as the easements and right of way.
If at some point we decide passenger rail service is not feasible, that is, if the new the study currently being done by the RTC says it is not, we can bank those rails, build out a trial, and use it for however long. Then, when and if train service becomes a more viable option, we can build the track again. Pirie noted that we would have to replace the current rails anyway for any usable passenger service.
In the event we do decide to put the rails in the bank, there is no obligation to repay the proposition 116 funds to the CTC (California Transportation Commission). While those funds are to be used to purchase rail lines for passenger rail, the state of California is not going to require communities such as Santa Cruz to do anything that does not make economic sense. The RTC has to act in good faith in making these decisions.
Passenger Rail Feasibility Studies
Regarding the previous feasibility study, Pirie notes that it was done before her time on the board, but thinks that the study was done under the assumption that the rail was locally owned, without having to pay Union Pacific for its use. As to why the current study might yield a different result than the past study, Ellen wasn’t aware of what might be different this time around, but speculated that rail service might be easier or cheaper to run now compared to then.
Rail vs. Trail
Many in the community point out that the current plan for the corridor (the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail Network) includes rail and trail, and we don’t have to make a choice: we can have it all. However, the reality is that old trestles rarely have room for both train service and a bike and pedestrian trail. Pirie pointed out that there are something like 33 trestles on the whole line, and they are a problem. Everywhere you have a trestle, we cannot also have a trail there. Of course, we could build something next to it, perhaps cantilever something off an existing trestle. There are a variety of things that can be done, but they are expensive. She suggests we could also be saving up for that as time goes by; if we can’t do train now, we can save up to do it at some time in the future.
The Way Forward
Pirie was asked how we might build out the trail if the new RTC study also concludes that passenger train service is not viable. To that, she responded that the RTC has a contract with Iowa Pacific (operators of the Train to Christmastown), and as long as that company wants to provide service on that line, we’d be hard pressed to cancel the contract given the restrictions on the proposition 116 funds.
If, for whatever reason, Iowa Pacific does decide to close up shop and abandon the contract, the RTC would then have to decide if the trail is the way to go. Other questions would then arise: how would the trail be funded? What would it look like, and how would it be maintained? These decisions will rest with the RTC, however, the RTC board is composed of elected officials who will, she said, be heavily influenced by pubic opinion.
What’s Next for Ellen Pirie
So what’s next for Ellen Pirie? Since she and her husband had to leave Peace Corps Ethiopia early, one possibility is to serve another year or two as a Peace Corps volunteer somewhere else in the world. Shorter term, she and her husband bought a camper and are planning to go camping and traveling around for a while. They’re really enjoying retired life: they’re “on a roll” and really enjoying themselves. They still have a house in La Selva Beach, and think they will be coming back to live here. She concludes by noting that it’s great to be back, and Santa Cruz county is a wonderful place.