Home News Mountain Charlie Road residents Residents contend with long commutes after landslide

Mountain Charlie Road residents Residents contend with long commutes after landslide


Mountain Charlie Road residents Residents contend with long commutes after landslide

A slow-moving landslide in the Santa Cruz Mountains is threatening hundreds of residents’ access to main roads and emergency services.

County officials first became aware of cracks appearing on a portion of Mountain Charlie Road just south of Lexington Reservoir on Feb. 26. The slide, which officials say is currently still moving at a rate of at least one foot per week, has rendered a portion of the road inaccessible to cars and barely accessible on foot, and almost completely decimated a private driveway just off the road that leads to five houses.

Residents of the five houses currently have tenuous access to water, internet and propane, and were forced to carve out a trail down a steep hill to walk by foot onto Mountain Charlie Road since the driveway is completely inaccessible by car and by foot. For residents living south of the landslide, the portion of Mountain Charlie Road that was affected by the landslide remains temporarily accessible on foot, but ongoing movement with the slide and intermittent rain may change that in the near future.

With fire season approaching, residents are also worried that the landslide could block emergency vehicles from accessing their homes in the event of a fire or other emergency.

“The community’s really, really worried about what happens if there’s a fire,” said Debbie Robinson, a resident on the south side of the slide. “We literally have one way out, and how are vehicles supposed to get up there to fight the fires, or if there’s emergencies where we need an ambulance or a fire truck?”

While residents have Los Gatos addresses, the road is owned and managed by Santa Cruz County

Steve Wiesner, assistant director of public works for Santa Cruz County, said at a meeting for residents affected by the slide on March 21 that the Scotts Valley Fire Department will be dispatched to respond to any emergencies that take place south of the slide, and the county’s fire department will continue to respond to emergencies north of the slide. The departments have tools they can use to transport patients from the houses above the private driveway if needed, Wiesner said.

For now, some residents on the south side of the slide are walking across the slide to get to their cars to eventually get to Los Gatos, where many of them work and attend school.

But since the slide is moving every day, it will soon be inaccessible by foot, and all residents will be forced to drive several miles to Scotts Valley to safely get onto Highway 17, making a 15- to 30-minute commute now one to two hours. And with the onset of warmer weather and a corresponding increase in traffic from beachgoers using Highway 17, they’re worried that these already long commutes could double or even triple in length.

“With accidents and then beach traffic time when there’s a lot more people coming to and from, I think that’s going to really severely impact all of us as well,” Robinson said.

Robinson said her 17-year-old daughter, who is also a new driver, has struggled to navigate alternative routes to Highway 17.

“One morning it took her two hours to get to school one way due to traffic on 17 and the new extended route,” she said.

Don Ferris, who lives in one of the five houses above the private driveway that was most impacted by the slide, said his neighbors’ primary concern at the moment is access to propane, which helps power heating including hot water, dryers and stovetops for their homes.

Propane companies “can’t get their vehicles in, and they don’t have hoses long enough to get to us,” Ferris said.

Wiesner encouraged attendees at the March 21 meeting to connect county officials to propane companies that have been slow to respond to “get them to engage in a more fruitful conversation.”

Wiesner said the department will be unable to begin work on the road until the slide’s movement slows to about three to six inches per week, which could take months.

“I do want to temper some expectations,” he said at the meeting. “I know a lot of folks would love us to get out there and repair this thing as soon as possible, but I will tell you from my experience–and I have a lot of experience fixing slides of this magnitude–these things take time.”

With more rain expected, Wiesner said, the road could be repaired within one year at best, and at most within three years, a timeline that drew concern from residents at the meeting.

“One to three years brings tears to my eyes,” said Emily Bieber, who lives on on Mountain Charlie Road.

Identifying funding for the repairs has also proven difficult.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) issued two disaster declarations for the county from December 2022 to January 2023, and another from February through July of last year. The declaration unlocked federal dollars to support the county’s relief efforts, about $74 million for the two disasters.

But as of December 2023, the county had only received 12% of those funds.

“Barring a shift in the speed at which local governments are reimbursed for the costs of disaster response and recovery, future county response will be limited by available resources, and the pace of infrastructure recovery will be slowed,” a memo from the December Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting reads.

FEMA had declared disasters for the county for the 2020 wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic and storms in 2017, and the county has yet to receive the full amount of federal funding for all of those emergencies.

A spokesperson for FEMA did not immediately return a request for comment.

Wiesner said since the slide is the result of the intense storms from last January, the best path to securing federal funding for repairs would be adding it to the scope of damages that were a result of the storms that FEMA has declared a disaster.

US Rep. Jimmy Panetta, whose district covers the portion of Mountain Charlie Road affected by the slide, said in a statement that he is monitoring the situation along with local and state officials.

“Due to the location of the damage, Santa Cruz County authorities are using local resources to clear and repair the road and ensure the safety of the local population,” he said.

The emotional toll that the slide has taken on nearby residents is further exacerbated by the one- to three-year timeline for road repairs. Residents said they’re worried about having to contend with precarious access to the main road for the long term.

“You kind of feel helpless because your normal life is gone,” Robinson said. “I mean, this is our thoroughfare to get from point A to point B, and it’s affecting not only all of us but the children in the community because they can’t just go and have a playdate with their friends. You have to really methodically think about all the things that you would normally do and take for granted.”

County officials said the lack of funds for the slide is part of a larger problem: the growing number of extreme weather events and natural disasters that the county has had to contend with in recent years. FEMA ranked Santa Cruz County as the most vulnerable to landslides in the state, and 15th most vulnerable in the nation.

Matt Machado, Santa Cruz County’s director of public works, said repeated disasters in recent years have depleted the county’s ability to maintain any contingency funds to aid in a situation like this one.

“The one thing is that we’re getting experienced in financing, borrowing money in trying to implement these projects,” Machado said.

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