John Daugherty stands by his RV on Delaware Avenue in Santa Cruz

John Daugherty usually parks his RV overnight in church parking lots that allow it, he said in 2021. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file)

SANTA CRUZ >> The California Coastal Commission on Thursday approved a Santa Cruz city law that bans overnight RV parking in coastal areas for one year. 

The commission also added a 72-hour notice before an RV is towed. The law applies throughout the city but required coastal commission approval for enforcement in the city’s Coastal Zone. The zone essentially runs from the ocean to the Santa Cruz Branch Rail Line on the Lower Westside, through the southern part of Downtown, Beach Hill and Seabright, said Central Coast District Manager Kevin Kahn.

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A California Coastal Commission map shows a blue boundary of the Coastal Zone. An overnight RV parking ban applies within the Coastal Zone in the City of Santa Cruz. (California Coastal Commission)

The commission also proposed and approved three amendments to the permit:

  • City leaders must form a stakeholder group that includes unhoused people to evaluate how the law works and affects the community.
  • City leaders must plan for operations, management and enforcement of wastewater and trash disposal in the Coastal Zone.
  • City leaders must post a 72-hour notice that an RV will be towed. In the permit, city leaders also pledged to “encourage” RV dwellers to use safe parking programs before a tow.

The Coastal Commission hearing stemmed from a law that the Santa Cruz City Council adopted in 2021 and reaffirmed in 2022 in response to residents who complained about RV camping and litter outside homes mainly on the Lower Westside. The law was appealed to the Coastal Commission. The commission evaluated issues like public access to the coast, effects on natural resources and environmental justice.

“This application raises a whole host of very complicated societal issues, and your standard of review is assets and recreation policies of the Coastal Act, the Local Coastal Program and an overlay of environmental justice,” said Louise Warren, general counsel for the Coastal Commission, during Thursday’s meeting. 

Legal RV parking

The City of Santa Cruz started its Safe Parking program last year at locations across the city:

  • Emergency, one-night parking: Three spaces to stay a single night at the Santa Cruz Police Department at 155 Center St.
  • Overnight parking: 46 spaces for overnight parking for up to 30 days including trash, hygiene facilities and restrooms, in eight locations across the city (see map). 
  • 24/7 parking at the National Guard Armory in DeLaveaga Park: 16-22 spaces for 24/7 parking at the National Guard Armory with no set time limit offering trash and restrooms plus showers, charging stations, vehicle battery charging, parking for other vehicles, and case managers to help apply to housing programs, health insurance and mental health support.
  • To access emergency parking or overnight parking, call 831-420-5093. To join the waitlist at the armory program, call 831-515-8665.

If all spaces are full, the city will give passes to park overnight on the street until a Safe Parking program space becomes available. The parking program at the armory has a waitlist of more than 50 people.

A City of Santa Cruz map shows Safe Parking locations for RVs in the city. Advocates said they were often far from the coast. City leaders said they were difficult to find. They are on city property, city-leased property and some spots that businesses use during the day. (City of Santa Cruz)

For residents who have a street address in Santa Cruz, as well as visitors, the law requires a permit for overnight RV street parking.

  • Residents will be allowed to park their RV within 400 feet of their homes for four 72-hour periods per month. Permits would be valid for a year. Residents will also receive six visitor permits per year for out-of-town guests.
  • For hotels and motels, the city would offer unlimited permits for guests. Each permit would be valid for up to 72 hours. 

“We have a situation where streets are not intended for habitation, and they do not have the necessary infrastructure to handle human waste,” said Lee Butler, Santa Cruz’s director of planning and community development. “Litter and outdoor restrooms are the result of having a lack of infrastructure in those areas.”

City leaders said a property owner in 2021 had to pay a biohazard company to clean wastewater that had been illegally dumped into a storm drain. A dumpster near Shaffer Road is currently emptied three times a week and costs the city $2,850 a month, city staff said.

Butler said coastal access was a concern with oversized vehicles parking near Natural Bridges State Park and the beach. Butler added that 20 nonprofit-operated safe spaces for homeless people to park in the city.

At Thursday’s meeting, Coastal Commission staff recommended approval of the permit to allow the city’s RV parking law, saying it had merit with its resource protection and new information from the city with the fleshed out parking program. The law has “negligible” impact on public access, since limits only apply 12-5 a.m., commission staff wrote.

After presentations by city staff, appellants and many comments from the public, commissioners ultimately approved the permit 9-2 with a “reluctant yes” vote from California Coastal Commissioner Justin Cummings. Cummings is a Santa Cruz County supervisor and former Santa Cruz City Council member. Cummings voted against the law while he was on the council. 

The permit and law will last for one year, after which the city will need to issue a new one, if it chooses to do so, said California Coastal Commission District Director Dan Carl. It could then be appealed again to the city and then the commission. 

Views for and against the law

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson introduced the item, saying it was designed to increase coastal access, limit environmental and public health impacts of oversized vehicles and provide safe spaces and paths to permanent housing to people who are unhoused.

Given Santa Cruz has the only city-sponsored safe parking program in the county, Kalantari-Johnson said the commission should help create a statewide safe parking network.

Larry Imwalle, the city’s homelessness response manager, shared about homeless response efforts over the past year. In March 2022, a three-year Homeless Response Action Plan was approved including the safe parking program, producing affordable housing, building staff capacity and partnering with the county and other organizations to offer shelter programs.

Jameelah Najieb of Disability Rights Advocates urged the permit’s rejection on coastal access issues, a lack of city outreach and that it’s not fair to punish an entire group.

“Unhoused people and RV residents will be excluded from accessing the coasts as a direct effect of this proposal,” Najieb said. It is the mission of the Coastal Commission to ensure that access to the coast is not only available to the general public, but to all people regardless of their race, culture, income or disability,” Najieb said.

Central Coast Commissioner Justin Cummings said he did not support the ordinance when it originally came before city council, but now was looking at this under Coastal Commission and Coastal Act — with a narrower lens than as a council member. He said there were two main issues under the Coastal Act: coastal access and environmental protection.

He recalled a scenario where a fifth-wheel trailer was left in the Coastal Zone at what is now Mission West Bar and previously Watering Hole, and actively dumping wastewater. 

On the public access issue, Cummings said he’d worked near the area of greatest concern between Swift Street and the end of Delaware Avenue from 2015-2020 at the Long Marine Lab.

Recently, he counted 14-16 vehicles in the area, and saw not many other cars there. He said people who recreate or live in RVs should be allowed to also access the coast and these areas.

“For those vehicles who are parked for more than 72 hours, I understand there are rules where everyone has access and we don’t want to have vehicles who decide that’s where they’re going to stay and for months at a time, which can also lead to negative impacts like blackwater and greywater dumping that leads to contamination in the Coastal Zone,” he said. “I do have concerns that the city is acknowledging they don’t have capacity to deal with those issues, but they do have capacity to run these programs. For me, it’s a way to push people out of these zones rather than address the negative impacts happening in these areas.”

Cummings added that Santa Cruz has the second most expensive rental housing in the nation based on fair-market rents. 

“People who have access to the coast and that community are predominantly people who have wealth and means. As development has been occurring, it’s majority market rate and less low-income. And so for many folks who are living in Santa Cruz who are renters, moving into your vehicle is oftentimes one of the only ways you can survive in that city,” he said. “I think we should exercise caution when we’re moving forward on how these programs are implemented and how we can hold the city accountable.”

Evan Morrison, executive director for Santa Cruz Free Guide, runs the city-sponsored Safe Parking program at the armory. Rather than focus on RV parking, policymakers should have a broader conversation on solving homelessness, Morrison said in a Santa Cruz Local interview.

With the new law, people who live in their RVs will be pushed to the city’s overnight Safe Parking spaces. They will have to move their RVs every day instead of every three days.

“Most of these vehicles are not in great shape,” Morrison said. He predicted more RV breakdowns and increased costs for people who live in their RVs.

Residents express views

Carol Polhamus of Westside Neighbors shared her support for the staff recommendation. She said her community has been asking for action on this for more than 10 years.

“Santa Cruz is serious about affordable housing,” Polhamus said. “Our city has done much more than surrounding municipalities to stand up services and shelter for those experiencing homelessness.”

Serg Kagno lives in a Mercedes Sprinter van he uses as his office for nonprofit consulting for homeless service providers. He said the permit would limit his way of life significantly.

“I pay taxes, try to be a good neighbor, have my own mental health diagnosis and disability and will be adversely affected if the [coastal development permit] application is approved. As a consultant for the County of Santa Cruz’s COVID emergency shelters I’ve occasionally supported programs by working nights because the sites did not provide on site parking,” Kagno said. “If the CDP is approved, I would not be able to see a movie; I would not be able to go to bars with friends; would not be able to visit late with friends; would not be able to sleep over at my partner’s house.”

Commissioners weigh in

Meagan Harmon, the commissioner representing the South Central Coast, said she was uncomfortable with Santa Barbara’s oversized vehicle ordinance and knew it was the source of “significant and onerous” litigation and had real quality of life issues.

“It’s a huge challenge for coastal communities to navigate, including those who are houseless,” Harmon said. “I’m struggling with this in light of advice from our general counsel on how environmental justice is used as an overlay; we’re thinking about it as burdens for the coastal development permit. It seems to me the burdens are exclusively focused on marginalized communities and benefits exclusively focused on people who are housed.”

“I don’t see a way of supporting this on those grounds,” she said. “I also have a very difficult, possibly impossible time separating issues of parking oversized vehicles and the state of being unhoused, to me rules like this denies oversized vehicle dwellers and houseless folks with equal protection under the law. That is a very, very significant constitutional concern for me and it’s important is part of this conversation, not an explicit one but certainly one running adjacent to what we’re talking about vis a vis the Coastal Act.”

Commissioners Harmon and Roberto Uranga voted no in the 9-2 vote. Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders was absent for the vote.

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