The City of Santa Cruz’s Oversized Vehicle Ordinance (OVO) is once again in limbo.
At its July 14 meeting, the California Coastal Commission agreed to review the OVO following a Coastal Commission Staff Addendum that states the ordinance would have a “substantial” impact on public access to the area’s beaches.
“By taking that action, the Commission took jurisdiction over the coastal permit application for the project,” California Coastal Commission Coastal Program Analyst, Kiana Ford, wrote to GT in an email.
The OVO was passed in November 2021 by the Santa Cruz City Council in a 5-2 vote, with councilmembers Sandy Brown and Justin Cummings dissenting. It prohibits any vehicle 20 feet or longer, 8 feet or taller and 7 feet or wider from parking on city streets between the hours of midnight and 5am. Parking permits for up to 72 hours are also available to purchase, but only for neighborhood residents.
While the Coastal Commission initially did not find any substantial issue with the OVO, the recent staff addendum followed an appeal filed by local individuals and organized groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Santa Cruz Cares.
“This ordinance is very clumsy,” says Reggie Meisler, cofounder of Santa Cruz Cares. “It’s developed by people who want to push the unhoused out of the city.”
Santa Cruz Cares was founded last November in response to the OVO. Their appeal—which was filed in May—contested one particular part of the ordinance which calls for a 24-hour, no-parking oversized vehicle buffer zone within 100 feet of “crosswalks, intersections, boulevard stop signs, official electric flashing devices and approaches to any traffic signals.”
The addendum argued the city already implements a 20-foot no parking buffer zone in these areas. It states if the 24-hour, 100-foot ban was to take effect, it would eliminate “parking options for oversized vehicles on 28 miles (at least) of City coastal zone streets (a 54% loss of such parking areas).” This is a significant reduction in coastal access—as mandated by the Coastal Act and Local Coastal Program, two sets of rules that dictate what local governments can do around the state’s beaches—for all oversized vehicles, including tourist RVs, the addendum states.
“If the City intends to continue to pursue that buffer parking restriction, then they are going to need to develop data to support it,” writes Ford.
However, city officials say the 100-foot zone is already part of California policy.
“It’s a public works issue,” explains Lee Butler, the city’s planning and community development director.
He cites the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) Highway Design Manual, which calls for a sight distance of 100 feet while stopping at speeds of 15 miles per hour.
“The issue is regarding sight distance and safety around those issues,” he says.
Ford writes that the next step is for Coastal Commission staff to “evaluate the City Coastal permit application in light of the Coastal Act and the LCP” and then develop a recommendation on it.
“We will continue to work with the city on these issues as we develop a recommendation,” Ford says.
The recent ruling is the latest obstacle the city has faced in trying to rework its rules around where, when and for how long RVs can park.
In 2015, the city council approved an ordinance—commonly referred to as the “RV ban”—that halted oversized vehicle parking in selected areas between the hours of 8pm and 8am. But that rule was overturned by the Coastal Commission a year later, following an appeal from local advocates for people experiencing homelessness.
As it did in last month’s ruling, the commission determined that the 2015 ordinance restricted coastal access.
“I continue to tell city staff that the resources we are investing [in the OVO] are not going to make a darn bit of difference,” Brown tells GT. “It’s really focused on appeasing a narrow constituency, I believe.”
She says that the OVO’s enforcement-based approach does nothing to address issues of safe parking or even why people are living out of their vehicles in the first place. Instead, she believes it only further continues the poverty cycle many residents living out of their vehicles already face.
“Without alternatives, people will be ticketed, towed and possibly lose their survival vehicle, which results in more people on the street,” she says.
“We create a system where we don’t give people a chance to better their situation because they’re facing constant criminalization,” says Stacey Falls.
Falls, a teacher at Santa Cruz High School for the last 17 years, is one of the citizen appellants to the OVO. After being served an eviction notice from their rental home of 11 years, she and her husband lived out of their RV from April 2019 until March of this year.
Falls considers herself and her husband two of the lucky ones. When they were panicking over where to park their vehicle both during the day and at night, a friend who owns a home came to their aid and offered to let them park it in the backyard.
“We ended up buying a house in March,” says Falls, who believes the only reason they were able to save money is by living in an RV without the worry of harassment.
Even so, Falls says they received a cease and desist letter from the City of Santa Cruz and had to prove to officials they were within the law on their friend’s private property.
“My problem with the OVO is that people pushing it don’t understand the desperation most renters are feeling,” she says. “They can’t understand why somebody might resort to living in an RV and aren’t accommodating to this alternative form of housing in this crazy expensive city that’s now the second-hardest rental market in the country.”
The Coastal Commission Staff Addendum also notes that individuals who use oversized vehicles “constitute an environmental justice community.” It’s a growing concern as climate change progresses and communities are displaced like in 2020 during the CZU Lightning Complex, which forced more than 25,000 people to evacuate their homes.
The staff report says the OVO contains language for the city to open more safe parking areas, but lacks specific language as to when and where they will be opened, and how many spaces could be available.
In her emailed response to GT, Ford says this will have a crucial impact on the Coastal Commission’s decision.
“We believe that this aspect of the city’s proposal needs to be further fleshed out for the Commission to properly consider the program as a whole,” she writes.
The City of Santa Cruz currently operates two safe-parking sites exclusively for overnight parking. The first is Lot 4, between Lincoln and Cathcart streets and the second is an emergency lot at the Santa Cruz Police Station.
“We have the ability to open up various other locations as well, but haven’t had the demand,” states Butler.
Still, he says the city is working on opening a third tier to their safe-parking program. Located in front of the Armory, this will operate as an all-day lot that will provide inhabitants with 24-hour parking.
“We have a contract approved with the Association of Faith Communities and the Free Guide to operate a 24-7 facility,” he says. “It will also provide services to connect individuals to housing, county services and benefits they might be eligible for.”
He says authorities are hoping to have it operating “within a month or so.”
But OVO opponents believe real progress can only be made by looking at the issue in an entirely different way.
“I do get it, there are some negative impacts of having RVs parking on the street,” Falls admits. “But we can mitigate those negative impacts by actually having support and infrastructure without criminalizing people.”