Neighbors sue SLO to overturn housing development



A coalition of SLO residents hit the city and a Los Angeles developer with a lawsuit in SLO County Superior Court May 2, fulfilling a promise to fight back against a recently approved housing project at 71 Palomar Ave., the site of a historic building.

The six-building, 33-unit development proposed in the Anholm District would move and repurpose a 19th century building—the Sandford House—and remove 55 of the 59 trees on the property. The SLO City Council voted 3-1 to deny a formal appeal of the project from two neighbors, Lydia Mourenza and Teresa Matthews, on April 4.

“It’s a really unique piece of property,” Mourenza told New Times. “Their plans all along flatten it out, and shove the house into a corner.”

The suing residents, “Friends of 71 Palomar,” claim that “substantial evidence” exists to show the development will have “a significant effect on the environment.” The lawsuit alleges that the city skirted the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not requiring the applicant, LR Development Group, to produce a full environmental impact report for the project.

In approving the project, the city concluded that the development would have a less than significant environmental impact, thanks to mitigation measures, like planting two new trees for every one removed and limiting construction activities during the bird nesting season. There are also conditions to preserve much of the Sandford House.

“We feel the process properly evaluated the potential environmental impacts and was done consistent with the law,” City Attorney Christine Dietrick said. “There are conditions [on the project] that we believe appropriately ensure the integrity of the natural habitat.”

But the lawsuit alleges that the biological impact of the 55 tree removals wasn’t thoroughly studied and asserts that a fair argument can be made that the impacts will be significant. The site’s urban forest is known to serve as habitat for various raptor species, including the Cooper’s hawk, which is on the Federal Watch List.

“The mitigation measure is to plant two trees for every tree that is removed, but there is no discussion as to how this will mitigate against loss of habitat for species of concern,” the lawsuit states.

Friends of 71 Palomar isn’t the only group that’s raised concerns about the environmental review. Matt Ritter, chair of the city’s tree committee, was critical of the arborist reports prepared for the project, identifying some inaccuracies.

“As you know, I was unimpressed with the developer’s arborist report as well as the second arborist’s report contracted by the city,” Ritter wrote to the City Council April 2. “I think our city should carefully consider any proposal to reduce large amounts of canopy cover. … [The trees] make up an important part of the urban forest in that neighborhood.”

The Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club also opposed the development. Director Andrew Christie noted the importance of urban forests and suggested the city ask the developer for “a design with a reduced footprint that minimizes the amount of grading and tree removal.”

LR Development Group owner Loren Riehl declined to comment. LR Development is also behind the housing project approved for the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Chorro Street.

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