Monday, December 11, 2023

#345 / Home Rule (And Attempts To Rule It Out)

The map above, from Wikipediashows those states whose fundamental governmental structure incorporates "home rule" provisions, meaning that cities and counties that are located in "home rule" states are able, themselves, to exercise powers of governance at the local level. 

You can click this link to read Wikipedia's explanation of the diagram. The color shown for California indicates that our state constitution does extend "home rule" governmental powers to local governments in California - at least with respect to those powers expressly delegated to such local governments. Up until very recently, one of the most important powers delegated to local governments in California has been the power to make land use decisions, deciding what sort of new development will be permitted, and where it will be permitted, and what conditions will be imposed when new developments are approved.

On November 5, 2023, in my local newspaper, a former City Council Member indicates that he believes that there are lots of "inconvenient truths" about this idea of "home rule." It seems, though he doesn't actually say so outright, that he objects to "home rule," and thinks that the California State Legislature should provide a "brighter future" for communities like Santa Cruz, and "stabilize" local communities, by eliminating or restricting the ability of those local communities to make their own governmental decisions about land use and development. 

For those conversant with the debates going on about this topic - and there are a lot of debates going on about it - it will not be a surprise to learn that the former Council Member who is advocating cutting back on the power of local elected officials to make decisions is employed as an "architect/developer." 

Local communities have often used their "home rule" powers to impose conditions upon proposed developments that the developers don't like. In some cases, local elected officials and local voters have actually prohibited certain kinds of development. In Santa Cruz County, for instance, local elected officials and local voters imposed a set of "Growth Management" principles that: (1) Prevent the development of commercially viable prime farmland; (2) Demand that new development not "sprawl" into undeveloped lands at the edges of existing communities but that such new development be located inside existing urban areas; and (3) Require that whenever a developer built five or more new residential units, at least 15% of those units will be permanently price-protected so that they could be afforded by person with average or below average incomes. 

In his recent column (a copy of which I have reproduced below, for the convenience of those reading this blog posting), the architect-developer arguing against "home rule" took me to task on multiple grounds, most of which were rather inaccurate, with respect to specifics. Still, the developer-columnist was generally correct in pointing out that when I was an elected official, which I was, for twenty years, I championed efforts by our local government and local community to exercise our "home rule" powers to help create the kind of community that the residents and the voters wanted to create. That specifically included imposing the requirements listed above on proposed developments. While it has been twenty-seven years since I last served in public office, the memories of the development industry are long! 

To be clear, I am NOT in favor of eliminating or truncating the power of local communities, acting through their elected local governments, to exercise so-called "home rule." Actually, "home rule" isn't a term that I normally use. I call the principle involved "self-government." 

During the years I was most actively engaged in local issues, and during the twenty years I served on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors as an elected official, here are some of the actions taken by local voters and local elected officials that have fundamentally affected our community. It is only a partial list, but it is a pretty significant list of accomplishments. Maybe you can see why I call it "self-government." Here is what our local communities did: 

  • Preserved and protected virtually all prime farmland in Santa Cruz County, which has made it possible for our agricultural industry to survive and prosper, and which has also prevented the transformation of the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz County North Coast into sprawling residential subdivisions, car dealerships, industrial warehouses, exclusive resorts, motels, and other such proposed developments. 
  • Stopped the proposed development of what is now Wilder Ranch State Park, which development would have come close to doubling the then-size of the City of Santa Cruz with just a single proposed development.
  • Slowed the pace of growth in Santa Cruz County. [In 1974, Santa Cruz County was the fastest growing county in the State of California and was the fifth fastest-growing county in the United States. That is no longer true.]
  • Stopped a proposed freeway from cutting right through the middle of the UCSC campus, to connect up Highway One, north of the City of Santa Cruz, to Highway One near the "Fishhook."
  • Prevented the development of Pogonip, and provided permanent protection to that spectacular property.
  • Similarly protected the Arana Gulch area from development, turning the property above the Yacht Harbor into what is now a wonderful park, with nature preserved. 
  • Stopped a proposed freeway going through Pogonip - the so-called "Eastern Access" - to connect the UCSC campus with Highway One near its intersection with Highway 9. 
  • In Watsonville, established an Urban Limit Line that protects farmland and prevents sprawl.
  • Stopped the so-called "Beach Loop" freeway from using Chestnut Street to access the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, cutting through residential neighborhoods at the heart of the city.
  • Saved Lighthouse Field, preventing the development of a huge Convention Center complex that would have included a high-rise hotel, a shopping center the size of the Rancho Del Mar shopping center, condominiums for the extremely wealthy, and seven acres of blacktopped parking.
  • Stopped the high-rise development of the Seabright residential neighborhood.
  • Provided permanent protection of the open space lands of the Santa Cruz County North Coast.
  • Required all new residential developments of five or more units to include at least 15% of the new housing with a permanent price-restriction that would make the housing permanently available for purchase or rent by persons with average or below average incomes. 

The development community did, indeed, find these actions "inconvenient," at least for the developers. All of these actions were either directly approved by voters or were enacted by local officials who had been elected by voters on the basis that they would support such actions. None of these things would have been accomplished without engaged and active citizen/neighborhood/voter participation. 

Like I say, I call this "self-government," and the truth is that we can lose much of what was accomplished if we lose what the former City Council member/developer is calling "home rule." Eliminating or restricting self-government provisions that give local communities power over future development will mean that the State Legislature, not local communities, will determine what happens in local communities up and down the state.

Be advised, development and business interests, generally armed with large amounts of campaign cash, are coming for our local communities. They get a warm reception in the State Legislature, where pesky community activists don't really get heard. 

Don't believe that eliminating the powers of local self-government will lead to more housing and other developments that will benefit those who are now priced out of housing in Santa Cruz County. 

Quite the opposite!


The Inconvenient Truths of ‘Home Rule’

I’ll soon be reporting on the brighter future opening up for us here in California, and the legislative roadmap that will help stabilize communities like ours. But we need to put old myths and superstitions to bed first, because we can’t solve problems with the tools that created them. That was brought home at a housing conference held at London Nelson recently. It was more of a reunion concert than a conference, more golden oldies than fresh tunes. But it made the point.

In introducing former Supervisor Gary Patton, Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley suggested that earlier settlers of Santa Cruz, those who welcomed the university to town, had assumed the newcomers would look just like themselves – presumably Republicans. But, according to Keeley, they were deer in the headlights of the civilizing elites who quickly brought culture and wise governance to this backwater of civilization. And for a while, under the firm leadership of Patton, all was peaceful and pastoral on the plantation, a golden age of “home rule.” Keeley warned that our Arcadian idyll is now being threatened by an imperious state Legislature — mostly Democrats as it happens – intent on forcing us to share our adopted birthright with a new wave of outsiders. It was a compelling narrative, the very stuff of myth.

Right on cue, Patton exhorted attendees to fight the good fight, to protect our community from outsiders – especially rich outsiders – and to not let the state dictate, through legislation, what happens in our community. We have the right to decide our own fate, to make our own choices, declared Patton, and we must defend this sacred right to home rule. Of course, the California Environmental Quality Act is state law, as is the Coastal Act. Patton seemed to have forgotten that he and his associates have for decades made a substantial living using those very state laws to thwart local land use decisions — the “home rule” Keeley extolled. Court challenges to environmental impact reports and appeals to the Coastal Commission are Patton’s weapons of choice, indeed his only effective weapons for overturning the decisions of duly-elected city councils and the board of supervisors. You know, the ones we choose to rule our roost. But it’s the victors who write history, and Patton is nothing if not history.

And what did UCSC have to add to this conference? An apology? An acknowledgment of the local damage they’ve done in the effort to do good by the state? No, they don’t have that in them. They may be eager to interrogate and critique plantation hegemony elsewhere, but not this close to home. So they played it safe, and studiously pointed fingers away from themselves. An exhaustive state-of-the-art student research project had revealed that poor neighborhoods are most likely to be re-developed. I was shocked to learn that there were still people on this planet who didn’t know that. But in this age of policy-based facts, the UCSC researchers let us know that Santa Cruz wasn’t growing to accommodate an expanding university, no, nor that were we experiencing the necessary and natural re-generation of city life. No, we are being “gentrified.” Us and Beverly Hills.

If you need an enemy to justify your existence, you probably are the enemy. Santa Cruz is not facing gentrification. Santa Cruz was gentrified in the ‘70s by the likes of Keeley, Patton and me.

Let’s start facing our inconvenient boomer truth. Those naive townies were neither stupid nor helpless. They fought off a nuclear power plant and saved Wilder Ranch long before we got here, and they knew we lacked the housing infrastructure to support a university. They warned us that, unless UC housed two thirds of its students and staff on campus, there would be hell to pay. That bit of native wisdom was lost on those who, to this day, refuse to zone a single lot in Santa Cruz for student housing.

If only we’d been a little less hubristic and a little more respectful, we might have listened and learned.

Mark Primack is an architect and former City Councilmember. Contact him at

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