In November, a small L-shaped tract of city land came to be regarded by some as perhaps the most underutilized public parcel in San Luis Obispo. The city has owned the property for In November, a small L-shaped tract of city land came to be regarded by some as perhaps the most underutilized public parcel in San Luis Obispo. The city has owned the property for only two years, and last year it allowed a farmer to use it to grow hay simply to prevent it from going fallow.
But with a pressing demand for more community garden space—119 people are waiting for a plot in San Luis Obispo—one group has materialized with plans to try to carve out a more productive use for the 13-acre site.
The property was on the City Council agenda of Nov. 18, scheduled for lease to a local farmer for five years for just a dollar per year. More than one citizen at the meeting saw opportunity, however, and one guy offered to double the price, which the council members declined. The farmer had offered to add some infrastructure that would bring more value to the land, staff said, which is one reason the price was so low. But when more people suggested there could be a better use for the property, council members decided to consider alternatives to growing hay.
Eric Vieum, an advocate for sustainable communities, belongs to a group seeking to transform the land into a community growing ground. The group doesn’t have a name yet, but after touring the property, members agreed the parcel could be used for wildlife habitat, for demonstrating “urban farming” techniques and new technologies, and for producing food. In all, it could provide hundreds of individual garden plots.
Beyond that, Vieum said, there is an opportunity to expand if the city takes control of two adjacent open-space properties. Right now, though, he said group members must still convince city officials.
Members of the group plan to appear before the City Council at a Jan. 15 forum at SLO’s Ludwick Center, where the public is invited to advocate projects for the next two-year budget cycle. City staff members will discuss and prioritize those ideas with input from the community, advisory bodies, and staff on Jan. 31. Although the community is encouraged to recommend how the city should spend money, there is little money to spend. Even with Measure Y funds from a recent sales tax increase, the city faces a $10 million budget gap.
“We have to start small,” Vieum acknowledged, “We know there’s a big financial crunch, so we don’t want to make it seem like it’s a big financial drain.”
The city’s natural resources manager, Neil Havlik, said even if the plans for the property are limited to community gardens, building such basic provisions as parking and bathrooms could be very expensive.
“The city would be receptive to something that doesn’t cost us anything,” Havlik said, “because that’s what we can afford.”
Infrastructure is not the only problem with the property. Havlik said that of the 13 acres, at most ten are farmable. The site is remote, located off Calle Joaquin, near Los Osos Valley Road, and inconvenient for access by bikes or pedestrians. The available water has a high mineral content, which may make it unsuitable for drinking, although a recent study suggests it would be fine for irrigation. There is also a problem with zoning: It is dedicated as open space on the general plan, which supports agricultural uses, but may not permit buildings or high impact use.
Still, the13 acres hold promise for community agriculture and other sustainable use.
“Let us come up with a plan,” Vieum said. “This project is going to have actual ownership by people in the community, it’s not something we expect city staff to have to take care of.” ∆
New Times Staff writer Kylie Mendonca can be reached [email protected].