Half Moon Bay Confronts Old and New Growth Issues
Faced with big growth pressures, the small coastal community of Half Moon Bay is engaged in high political drama while dealing with a knotty set of planning problems. The city has approved several controversial developments, but it is also considering a way to limit development on thousands of old, substandard lots. Half Moon Bay also continues to struggle with how to operate under growth control initiatives and is receiving pressure from the Coastal Commission to update its Local Coastal Plan (LCP).
Growth battles are not new in Half Moon Bay, a city of 11,800 that stretches for six miles along Highway 1 in San Mateo County. Traffic has been the central issue since at least the 1960s. On a map, Half Moon Bay looks like an easy commute from the job centers of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. However, only two mountainous two-lane highways (and some even slower county roads) connect Half Moon Bay with larger cities. The commute has worsened over the years, and weekend traffic can be even heavier, especially in the town itself.
"It's an area that has a limited ability to support continued growth," said Chris Kern, supervisor of the Coastal Commission's North Central Coast District. "Highways 1 and 92 are already operating above their capacities. You hear horror stories about people taking two hours to get through Half Moon Bay on a sunny Saturday."
Besides the traffic controversy, protection of sensitive coastal habitat continues to arise as an issue for environmentalists and the Coastal Commission.
The entire city lies within the Coastal Zone, so Half Moon Bay's LCP and its general plan are practically the same, said Community Development Director Kenneth Curtis. The Coastal Commission certified the land use plan of the LCP in 1985 and approved substantial amendments 10 years later. The city has been in the process of updating its LCP and the general plan for some time, with an eye toward greater protection of coastal resources, Curtis said.
Four developments approved by the city have generated much of the recent controversy: a large hotel, a 200-acre mixed-use project, and two subdivisions.
The hotel is a six-story, 261-room Ritz-Carlton on 14 oceanfront acres at the south end of town. A hotel was originally approved for the site 30 years ago, but construction stalled. After plans were updated, construction began anew in 1999 and the Ritz opened early this year.
Locals say the Ritz is a bad fit for the beach town, which has some modest neighborhoods. San Francisco Chronicle urban design writer John King agreed in a column this spring. "All of the wood shingles in the world can't hide the awkwardness of a 260,000-square-foot structure imposing itself on a bluff that you approach by driving past mobile homes and an RV park," King wrote.
While the Ritz might have few local boosters, the proposed Wavecrest Village nearby does have backers, including people normally on the slow-growth side of the aisle. Originally approved in 1995 as 750 homes, a golf course, an RV park and an oceanfront hotel, Wavecrest was shot down by voters in 1995. After the referendum defeat, project backers went to work with two councilmembers to craft a compromise. In 1999, the City Council unanimously approved a revised project that called for 271 homes to be phased in over a decade, a 17-acre office and retail component, a Boys and Girls Club, a site for a new middle school, and sports fields. In all, about half of the 207-acre site would be set aside for open space or public facilities.
Mayor Deborah Ruddock, who co-wrote a 1999 slow-growth initiative, said she backed the revised project because of amenities the city would gain, including extension of the coastal trail along a 1,500-foot setback from the bluffs.
Still, disgruntled investors appealed Wavecrest to the Coastal Commission, where it has languished for more than two years. During the latest hearing in June, the commission refused to approve the project. Commissioners complained that wetlands were not fully delineated and information on raptor habitat was lacking.
City Planning Commission Chairman Mike Ferreira, who is running for the City Council this fall, said the Coastal Commission was correct to demand more information. He also questioned the city's willingness to cut a deal for the project.
"There are no replaceable coastal resources. You lose them, they are gone — wetlands, a raptor habitat area … there is no turning back from that loss," Ferreira argued. "If we kept that in mind more, we would probably negotiate differently."
Two other substantial projects are tangled in litigation. The 114-acre Pacific Ridge subdivision received formal Coastal Commission approval in August. However, the Commission reduced the project by 25 lots to 120 and conditioned approval on retirement of development rights on an equal number of substandard lots elsewhere in town. The decision generated a lawsuit from developer Albert Fong.
Also at issue is the 84-lot Beechwood subdivision. The city initially rejected the development because of impacts to wetlands, but a Superior Court judge ordered the city to approve the project. The city did so early this year, but the Coastal Commission took up Beechwood on appeal and decided to conduct a fresh review, raising questions about the court order.
Twice, Half Moon Bay voters have approved growth control initiatives. Measure A in 1991 imposed a 3% cap after a rapid growth spurt began in 1988. Measure D, from 1999, which Ruddock helped draft, imposed a 1% growth cap — about 40 homes a year — with exceptions for downtown. Some voters were angered earlier this year when the City Council voted 3-2 to exempt roughly 500 parcels in already approved projects — including Wavecrest Village — from Measure D's cap. Noting that Measure A's implementation was similar, Ruddock said she supported the exemption based on legal advice.
She also hinted that the exemption may not mean a great deal. "All of these particular projects have problems of one type or another, either expiration of a map or all these incredible traffic impacts," said Ruddock, who works as a project manager for the state Coastal Conservancy.
The city also continues to wrestle with a huge number of substandard lots, most approved 80 to 100 years ago. Community Developer Director Curtis estimated that 5,000 lots exist in 12 old subdivisions, mostly between Highway 1 and the beach. City officials are considering a transfer of development rights program, which the Coastal Commission is encouraging. The Coastal Commission recently approved the city's "proportionality ordinance," which limits building size on small lots.
Also impacting the city is development in the unincorporated "Mid-Coast" north of Half Moon Bay. Ruddock said the San Mateo County LCP for the area allows about 125 new homes a year. The city, however, gets most of the traffic and provides parks for the area without reimbursement, she complained.
Deborah Ruddock, Half Moon Bay mayor, (650) 726-8720.
Mike Ferreira, Planning Commission chairman, (650) 726-3500.
Kenneth Curtis, community development director, (650) 726-8250.
Chris Kern, Coastal Commission North Central Coast District supervisor, (415) 904-5260.