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Proposed senior living facility in Santa Cruz could risk monarch butterflies

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A proposed plan for a new senior living facility along West Cliff Drive has long been criticized for the potential traffic, noise and risk to neighboring monarch butterflies that shelter down the block in Lighthouse Field during the winter months.

On Tuesday, City Council will review and possibly approve the project.

"When they're putting up new buildings, taking out grass, taking out landscaping, it upsets their habitat," Alexandra Armstrong, who lives right across the street from the project, said.

Hanging butterflies
Several western monarch butterflies hanging on a eucalyptus tree. Danaus plexippus, backlit by the sun. Getty Images

The proposal is a 76-unit, 74,218-square-foot, two-story senior living facility with memory care and two affordable housing units, which would be built behind The Shrine of St. Joseph and replace an existing building that's been vacant since 2019 when Gateway School moved locations.

Now the plan is to demolish the former school and an adjacent smaller building, remove six heritage trees and reconfigure the 7 acres of land from five to two lots.

The idea to build a senior living facility came from St. Joseph's, which hired and leased the land to Oppiden, a development firm based out of Minnesota.

"Historically, we have worked with the elderly, and worked with the infirmed, and worked with those who need care near the end of life. So it was not only needed in Santa Cruz but also something near and dear to our hearts," Father Matthew Spencer said.

The proceeds will benefit the shrine and similar ministries across California.

However, people living in Westside neighborhoods — some right across from the demolition site — are concerned it would disrupt monarch butterflies sheltering in Lighthouse Field.

"Thirty, forty years ago, they wanted to build a convention center here, and there was a big grassroots movement to save Lighthouse Field, which has been really successful. At the time, the butterflies didn't come down here, but now they do, and if there would've been a convention center they wouldn't be here," said Max Copperman, a 20-year resident.

A consulting biologist recommended by the city of Santa Cruz and hired by Oppiden recommended the following precautions: establishing a 100-foot no-construction zone around the monarch habitat, delaying construction to when the weather is warmer and reducing the flow of traffic.

People living across the street say plans have not been adequately communicated and that they continue to be concerned about overall traffic, noise and affordability.

"Assisted living is a good thing, but what is the benefit to our community? What's the benefit?" Armstrong said.

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