Community health and dental clinics on the 1500 block of Capitola Road in Live Oak. The clinics are open and the apartments are nearly finished.

Bienestar Apartments’ 57 affordable homes are nearly complete on the 1500 block of Capitola Road in Live Oak. The project is at left, behind Dientes Community Dental. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local) 

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz County Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to allow more than 6,000 new homes in unincorporated areas of the county in the next eight years. Most of the potential home sites are in Aptos, Live Oak and Soquel.

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State authorities require Santa Cruz County staff to permit 4,634 new homes in unincorporated areas of the county over the next eight years. That number of new homes is more than three times the county’s previous, unmet target.

At a Nov. 14 meeting, the county supervisors voted unanimously to submit a new draft of the Housing Element of the county’s General Plan. Maps in the plan are nearly identical to those in a September draft

The supervisors also voted unanimously to:

  • Set aside 4 acres for open space at a nearly 14 acre former golf course at 2600 Mar Vista Drive in Aptos. The property is expected to be rezoned to allow 430 homes. County staff recommended 2-4 acres set aside, and Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend pushed for 4 acres.
  • Add a requirement to replace demolished affordable housing. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Justin Cummings suggested the change. 
  • Add a requirement that new rental developments with five or more units have at least 15% of units affordable, based on state income limits. Earlier rules did not include rentals. Cummings suggested the change.  
  • Allow county staff to make changes to the plan needed for approval by the state without board approval. County staff can remove the changes proposed by Friend and Cummings if the state objects to them.

State housing requirements

California authorities require cities and counties to update a part of their General Plan called the Housing Element every eight years with new plans to meet state housing goals. When areas do not make enough progress on those goals, state law allows streamlined approval of some housing projects and limits to the veto power of city or county leaders on housing proposals.

  • The Regional Housing Needs Allocation, as determined by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, calls for 4,634 new homes to be permitted in unincorporated Santa Cruz County from 2023 to 2031. The cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Scotts Valley and Capitola each have their own assigned housing targets that are not included in the county’s plan. 
  • Santa Cruz County’s draft Housing Element includes plans to allow 6,431 new homes. Homes could be built in areas where zoning could change, vacant land, county-owned land and “underutilized” sites, according to the draft plan. 
  • The county has submitted numerous draft Housing Elements for approval by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. County staff have continued to change the draft to address feedback from state authorities.

Santa Cruz County’s November Housing Element includes minor changes from the September draft county staff said. It has further explanation of the city’s existing housing policies and planned efforts to support housing development. Two new housing projects in development were added, and one completed development was removed.

District 5 Supervisor Bruce McPherson asked county staff at the Nov. 14 meeting whether the electrical grid and local water supply could support the anticipated new housing.

“Any development in the future will be required to have a certificate of availability from the water provider and the sewer provider,” said Stephanie Hansen, assistant director of the county’s department of community development and infrastructure. However, more than urban development, it’s “agricultural uses that really impact water,” she said. 

The plan encourages new homes to be built in more urban parts of the county, rather than rural areas more prone to power outages, Hansen said.

Joanna Carmen, the director of housing for nonprofit developer MidPen Housing, said the Housing Element is needed to create more opportunities for affordable and market-rate housing. MidPen has affordable housing projects in the works across the San Francisco Bay Area and Santa Cruz County. 

“Our waitlist exceeds over 66,000 households for our existing 750 apartment homes,” Carmen  said during the Nov. 14 meeting. “The county needs to utilize all the tools at its disposal to increase multifamily housing development.”

Community health and dental clinics on the 1500 block of Capitola Road in Live Oak. The clinics are open and the apartments are nearly finished.

Construction started in 2021 on community health and dental clinics and the Bienestar Apartments on the 1500 block of Capitola Road in Live Oak. The clinics are open and the apartments are nearly finished. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local)

The four cities in Santa Cruz County are required to have state-approved Housing Elements by Dec. 15. 

Leaders from the cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Scotts Valley. have submitted several drafts to the state and have received rounds of comments without approval.

  • City of Santa Cruz staff created a new draft Housing Element in response to comments from the state. The city council is slated to vote on the draft at its Dec. 12 meeting.
  • Capitola leaders await approval or further comments from the state after submitting a draft Housing Element approved by city council Nov. 9.
  • Scotts Valley leaders await approval or further comments from the state after submitting a draft Housing Element Oct. 20. 
  • Watsonville leaders plan to submit a Housing Element by the end of the year, said Watsonville Principal Planner Matt Orbach. In October, the city council approved the Downtown Specific Plan, which identifies some sites for potential housing development.

Affordable housing requirements

The county requires that 15% of homes be affordable in developments with five or more homes that are for sale. The rule doesn’t include rental properties, Cummings said.

Cummings proposed: 

  • Adding a 15% affordable housing requirement for rental developments with five or more units.
  • Adding a rule that if affordable homes are demolished to make way for a new development, the developer must replace the lost homes with an equal number of affordable homes on the same site. The replacement homes would not count towards the 15% requirement.

County staff said housing proposals since 2018 typically include affordable housing because they apply for a density bonus. Density bonus projects can be taller and include more homes than zoning would otherwise allow.

Cummings said the county should have its own rules that apply to all housing projects with more than four homes, even if they don’t have a density bonus. “There’s no guarantee that all the projects that come before us will be density bonus projects,” he said.

During public comment, rural Aptos resident Becky Steinbruner said she supported efforts to reintroduce affordable housing requirements for rental properties. “It’s important, because the bulk of the people here are renters,” she said

Debate over former Aptos golf course 

District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend continued to advocate for more public space at a former golf course in Aptos that is slated to be rezoned to allow development. The land is in County Supervisor District 2 represented by Friend. 

The county’s draft Housing Element would allow 430 new homes at 2600 Mar Vista Drive in Aptos. The nearly 14-acre site is at a former par 3 golf course that closed in 1999 and was a native plant nursery until 2018. The land is zoned for parks, recreation and open space.

At Friend’s suggestion, the board in September directed county staff to consider requiring that some of the property be set aside for public space. Tuesday, county staff recommended setting 2 to 4 acres aside for open space.

Santa Cruz County’s draft Housing Element would allow 430 new homes at a former golf course at 2600 Mar Vista Drive in Aptos. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend advocated for senior housing and a park on the site. (Jesse Kathan — Santa Cruz Local file)

Staff suggested to determine the size and design of open space after the Housing Element has been approved by the state. Friend proposed changing the draft plan to specify that 4 acres be set aside for open space. That “still maintains over 70% of the parcel for housing,” Friend said.

“It’s a little frustrating that the one large site in the second district (the former golf course) that has been considered has been reduced and reduced,”said Supervisor Manu Koenig, who represents District 1. Most sites considered for rezoning are within District 1, he said.

A lawyer for advocacy group The Aptos Council said the site was needed for public recreation. “The community has long rejected the site as an area for housing,” said Antoinette Ranit, a lawyer for Wittwer Parkin LLP, during public comment. Rezoning the property to allow housing would legally require more extensive environmental review, she said.

A Housing Element map submitted to state authorities this month shows areas for potential new homes in Aptos and Soquel. Capitola has a separate draft Housing Element. (County of Santa Cruz)

A Housing Element map submitted to state authorities this month shows areas for potential new homes in Live Oak. Santa Cruz and Capitola have separate draft Housing Elements. (County of Santa Cruz)

County staff cautioned against changing the affordable housing requirements and plans for the Aptos golf course in the Housing Element. 

“It’s very important that we get to compliance as soon as possible,” said Hansen, the county staffer who helped write the plan. With the proposed changes, “we feel concerned that that may delay certification.”

Once the plan is submitted, state authorities have 60 days to review it. State leaders could accept the plan or return it for further revisions, county staff said. 

If the county does not have a state-approved Housing Element by Dec. 15, the county would be ineligible for some state funding. It could also streamline approval of housing development anywhere in the unincorporated county, with limited input from county leaders or staff, until the Housing Element is certified by the state.

Friend said it was unlikely that the plan wouldn’t be approved before the deadline. 

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.