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Coast Hotel backers pin defeat on Wormhoudt

March 29, 2005

Coast Hotel backers pin defeat on Wormhoudt

By SHANNA MCCORD
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ — Supporters of the now-dead Coast Santa Cruz Hotel project say 3rd District county Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt secretly orchestrated opposition to the $100 million development plan months before going public with strong objections.

An August memo from her assistant e-mailed to two city planning commissioners detailed more than two dozen concerns "Mardi asked me to share with you," asking to withhold attribution to him or Wormhoudt.

The two commissioners later voted against the project.

Five months later, Wormhoudt went public with her opposition in a Sentinel op-ed in which she criticized the City Council for fostering a process for the project that "deeply divided" the community, and predicted it would "never come to fruition with so much opposition."

Former Mayor Scott Kennedy, a major proponent of the hotel and conference center, took issue with Wormhoudt for not being more open with her opposition and with her criticism of the City Council for not providing more time for public comment.

"What this memo demonstrates is that the 3rd District supervisor’s office was working to defeat the hotel conference center the whole time," Kennedy said. "And they were masking the fact that they were saying don’t tell anybody and don’t associate us with these comments."

Geoffrey Dunn, a Santa Cruz resident and local historian, labeled the memo "secret back-room government at its very worst.

"The 3rd District office has been secretly and covertly influencing City Council actions for years. It’s the big open secret about Santa Cruz city politics," Dunn said. "I’d say it’s about time for the 3rd District office to stay out of city politics and focus on the economic issues in the county."

Wormhoudt, whose supervisorial district covers most of the city of Santa Cruz, was out of town and unavailable to comment.

Andy Schiffrin, Wormhoudt’s assistant, said Wormhoudt declined to formally submit his concerns during the project’s public planning process, and instead preferred to make them available to interested parties.

"My background is in planning and I read most, if not all, the EIRs on projects that get done around the county," Schiffrin said. "That’s what the EIR process is all about, to raise those questions."

Supporters of the Coast Hotel project touted it as a major new tax source for the city.

The plan drafted by the city Redevelopment Agency and hotel owner Western Hotel Properties included tearing down the former Dream Inn on West Cliff Drive and replacing it with a larger oceanfront hotel connected to a six-level parking garage and 23,000-square foot conference center.

The Redevelopment Agency had pledged $30 million to the project, which included ownership of the parking garage and conference center building to be leased to the hotel owner.

The money, city officials said, would have been raised through a bond and repaid during the next 30 years with anticipated new annual tax revenue.

During the past year, the city has spent about $600,000 on bringing the project to this stage, including costs for planning permits and traffic studies, said Ceil Cirillo, director of the Redevelopment Agency.

However, opponents lobbied against the project because of its size, location, expected traffic impacts and financial risk.

In a concentrated effort to overturn the City Council’s narrow approval of the project, opponents launched a 30-day signature drive to put the issue to a citywide vote. Roughly 8,400 signatures, more than twice the required amount, were turned in to the City Clerk and sent to the county Elections Department for verification.

However, on Friday, Western Hotel Properties withdrew its plans because of the bitter divide the project had created in the community and results from a citywide poll that apparently showed marginal support for the project if it were to be voted on by residents.

In his Aug. 26 e-mail, Schiffrin highlighted at least 25 concerns from findings in the hotel and conference center’s draft environmental impact report.

The e-mail, which read, "We have a number of concerns with the draft environmental impact report that Mardi asked me to share with you informally to use as you wish. However, please do not attribute them to me or us," was sent to city planning commissioners Kaitilin Gaffney and Diane Louie, and former Mayor Celia Scott.

Schiffrin’s comments were copied nearly verbatim by city Councilman Ed Porter in his Sept. 23 response to the draft environmental impact report.

In their responses, Schiffrin and Porter both stated, "The two biggest issues with this project and the (draft environmental impact report) concern the aesthetic impacts and the traffic impacts," and "Unfortunately, the traffic analysis is less honest in its conclusions."

Porter said he gathered input from many community members, including Schiffrin, before submitting his response to the project.

"I think the comments are very astute and that’s why I went ahead and put them into the record," Porter said Monday. "Many of those comments I couldn’t write better myself. I had license to use them and that’s what I did."

Porter joined council members Tim Fitzmaurice and Emily Reilly in voting against the project in January and February when the council narrowly approved the $100 million project by a 4-3 vote.

Schiffrin said Porter had his permission to use the comments.

Wormhoudt went public with her project opposition in the Jan. 23 Sentinel op-ed piece, writing "I would urge the council to start the planning process over, with a far more inclusive question and a far more inclusive group of people working together to develop the answer."

Kennedy said Wormhoudt is entitled to her opinion of the project.

"I’m not saying she shouldn’t weigh in on the issues, but this lacked transparency," Kennedy said.

Planning commissioner Gaffney, who was on maternity leave when Schiffrin’s e-mail was sent in August, hardly remembers receiving it.

But she said it had no influence in her decision to vote against the project.

Gaffney and Louie were the two planning commissioners who opposed the hotel expansion plan on West Cliff Drive when the commission voted in January.

"In my case, I thought the project was so inconsistent with our General Plan," Gaffney said. "I don’t think you can equate (environmental) concerns with opposition. I don’t know if Mardi opposes the project or not."

Contact Shanna McCord at smccord@santacruzsentinel.com.

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