After objections raised by some residents from eastern Santa Cruz County, the scope of a proposed change to the Santa Cruz County Planning Code is being scaled back to only affect the Rio Rico area, rather than all unincorporated areas in the County. And that’s good news. 

Eastern Santa Cruz County has its own distinct rural character. The expectations of residents here are that zoning codes should work to preserve the character of the landscape and the nature of future growth with input from the very people who would be affected by any changes. 

The March 23 meeting of the County Planning and Zoning Commission is an example of overreach by County officials and the importance of public participation in the County’s meetings.

A revision of the County zoning code, introduced as Article 31, that would have affected all unincorporated areas in the county, was proposed by SCC Community Development Director Frank Dillon and his staff. This article would have established “uniform criteria and procedures for the review, adoption and implementation of Specific Zoning Plans within the unincorporated area of Santa Cruz County, in order to promote land use flexibility and provide a bridge between the County’s Comprehensive Plan and individual development projects,” according to the agenda for that meeting. 

The proposed revision to the zoning code was triggered by a December 2022 resolution adopted by the County Board of Supervisors creating a “vitality zone,” basically a neighborhood commercial zone, in Rio Rico. That resolution, signed by all three supervisors, stated that “Santa Cruz County hereby expresses its approval and support for economic development, workforce/affordable employment, and education opportunities in and around the Rio Rico/I-19 Corridor.” Nowhere was the rest of the county’s unincorporated areas mentioned. 

When asked by the PRT why the scope of the proposed change to the zoning code had been broadened to include all unincorporated areas, SCC Community Development Director Frank Dillon responded, “When developing the new zoning regulations for the proposed article, a review of best practices indicated that these tools are not limited to specific boundaries.” His response seems to indicate that the decision to expand the zoning changes throughout the entire county was made by Dillon and/or his staff, not by elected officials or by the Zoning Commission.

Several attendees at the meeting argued against this proposed change to the code. Randy Heiss, one of the three P & Z Commissioners representing District 3, which includes Patagonia, Sonoita and Elgin, quoted the County’s Comprehensive Plan, which describes the rural character of the area, and voiced his objections to the loosening of zoning restrictions in our area. 

Article 31 included the creation of ‘specific zoning plan districts,’ which could be initiated by an application by individual property owners. There are no minimum or maximum size limits defined for these districts, and they could support “a variety of uses that are not tied to existing underlying zoning,” according to Dillon, to promote “land use flexibility,” phrases sure to strike fear into the hearts of residents who worry about preservation of the character of the area. 

The proposed article also assigned much of the decision making to the Planning and Zoning Director and his staff, employees of the County, rather than with the nine Commissioners on the Planning and Zoning Commission Board. It was stated in Article 31 that “the director shall determine whether a specific zoning plan application complies with the comprehensive plan.” Also, the Community Development Dept. can “offer an alternative recommendation if it disagrees with the vote of the Commission.” 

There are three commissioners from each district, appointed by the County Selectman to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission. Perhaps it would make sense, as suggested by Matt Parrilli, of Elgin, at the March meeting, if the commissioners from each district were given more power to rule on zoning issues within their own districts rather than leave these decisions in the hands of County employees. 

The March 23 meeting, held in Nogales, was sparsely attended by District 3 residents. One of the challenges for residents of eastern Santa Cruz County is the lack of adequate notification for public meetings. The PRT has reached out to the County, offering to run public notices at no cost to inform our readers about upcoming meetings that affect our communities, but so far the county has not responded to this request. 

Another challenge is the hour or more drive to Nogales, where the meetings are held, as well as the fact that the meetings are held during work hours, rather than in the evening when more people would be free to attend. 

If public meetings on zoning issues that would affect the lifestyle and character of an area were held in the district to be affected by those proposals, if the County would make more of an effort to inform the residents of those meetings, and if the commissioners from each district were given more of a voice in these decisions, many residents of eastern Santa Cruz County might not feel so disenfranchised and disenchanted with their County government.