Judge asks tough questions in Santa Margarita Ranch suit



The two parties embroiled in legal battle over the 2008 approval of the controversial Santa Margarita Ranch development had their last chance to argue their cases before a judge on Jan. 4 at the Paso Robles courthouse.

And unlike in a similar Nov. 22 hearing, this time San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford had tough questions to ask of attorneys for the petitioners, the nonprofit North County Watch and the Endangered Habitats League.

At stake is a roughly 3,800-square-foot high-end residence subdivision in rural Santa Margarita—still undeveloped—some 10 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo, which appears to hold consequences to fragile wildlife.

Narrowly approved at the 11th hour by a lame-duck, development-friendly board of supervisors majority in the final days of 2008, the development spurred a lawsuit by the two groups, alleging that the board failed to follow its own county general plan, as well as adequately assess the project’s environmental impact report before approving the project against the discretion of its own planning commission.

Though the county was originally named in the lawsuit, County Counsel Tim McNulty previously explained to New Times that county supervisors voted to take a neutral stance, and respondent duties fell to the real party in interest, Santa Margarita Ranch, L.L.C., the developer.

Of issue on Jan. 4, Crawford took the petitioners to task over their arguments that the county improperly waived air quality mitigation measures in the days leading up to the approval, and that the project violated California Environmental Quality Act provisions as well as the county’s general plan.

In a brief filed Dec. 19, Santa Margarita Ranch L.L.C. attorney Richard Monk argued that the developer implemented adequate mitigation measures for environmental impacts to local fragile species, such as the vernal pool fairy shrimp, the California tiger salamander, and the California red legged frog. Furthermore, Monk argued that North County Watch’s air quality mitigation argument wasn’t supported by the record.

North County Watch president Susan Harvey told New Times she was hopeful following the previous hearing but found the latest to be “disconcerting.”

“I think we were fairly disappointed with the questioning the judge put forth, specifically on the land-consistency and land-use issues,” Sarah Clark, attorney for North County Watch, told New Times. “We’re hopeful that we presented our best case and think he’ll see the inconsistencies [in the project’s approval].”

Monk didn’t return requests for comment.

Crawford has until early April to issue a ruling in the civil case.

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