We are about to witness the Last Hurrah of the three pro-development county supervisors who have come to be known as the “Three Amigos.” They are, of course, supervisors Jerry Lenthall, Harry Ovitt, and Katcho Achadjian. Over the past few years these three have been staunch supporters of the development community. They have regularly ignored or overturned the recommendations of the Planning Commission, the planning staff and even County Counsel. They have shown little regard for the strictures contained in the General Plan. They have contributed to urban sprawl, particularly in the North County.
- PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY B. ROWE
This is the Last Hurrah for these three, because two of them, Supervisors Lenthall and Ovitt, were soundly defeated by the voters in the election last June and therefore are lame ducks. Their terms will expire at the end of this year. Supervisor Achadjian has survived because he was not on the ballot in June. The Last Hurrah of the Three Amigos is particularly cynical and blatant because it flies in the face of the message sent to the board by the voters in June. Here is what is happening.
The largest ag cluster development in the history of the county has been wending its way through the process. It is the Santa Margarita Ranch Development Project. The first phase of this project would develop 112 homes on Santa Margarita Ranch, perhaps the most beautiful property in this part of the state. The nearly 50-pound Environmental Impact Report for the Santa Margarita Ranch Project outlines numerous problems. There are multiple departures from the General Plan, problems with water and with degradation of environmental standards. The development will have a severe impact on the town of Santa Margarita. The professional planners for the county and the Planning Commission have opposed this development.
As a result, we were treated to a bizarre effort by the developers to get early action by the Planning Commission. They knew very well that the Planning Commission would disapprove their project. They wanted the disapproval quickly so they could appeal that ruling to the Board of Supervisors while the Three Amigos were still in the saddle.
As a result, we were witness to gleeful high-fives by the developers when the Planning Commission acted early and rejected their plan. After that rejection, one of the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch was seen high-fiving and hugging none other than Supervisor Jerry Lenthall. Their plan to get the matter before the Three Amigos had succeeded.
There was another problem that presented itself. It seems that Supervisor Achadjian and one of the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch development sit on the board of directors of Santa Lucia Bank and are stockholders in that bank. In essence, he is in business with one of the owners of the development being considered by the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Achadjian is armed with the legal opinion that this conflict would not preclude acting and voting on the project. This legal opinion assumes that Santa Lucia Bank will not profit as a result of building these 112 homes in their business area—you think?
Even if Achadjian’s situation does not technically and legally preclude him from voting, it certainly does not pass “the smell test.” To have a supervisor vote on such a controversial and disastrous development owned by people who are literally in business with him is questionable.
When the matter came before the Board of Supervisors there was a public outcry. The county planning staff, the Department of Fish and Game, the Air Pollution Control District, CalTrans, and the Agricultural Department, as well as numerous citizens, all spoke against this disastrous mega-project. The people literally begged the supervisors to send the developers back to the Planning Commision to create a development that addressed the problems set forth in the EIR. Despite the opposition and the problems with the plan, the Three Amigos blithely approved the appeal, overturned the findings of the Planning Commission, and allowed the project to go forward.
This scenario is extremely frustrating for voters who thought they sent a clear message to the board that such insider shenanigans had to cease. Further action on the Santa Margarita Ranch will take place on Dec. 16. If the supervisors again vote in favor of the project, what are voters to do? One remedy, of course, is to remind the public of Katcho Achadjian’s involvement in this fiasco in the event he runs for reelection. Another possibility is for the opponents of the project to go back to the voters to seek to overturn the actions of the Board of Supervisors by the referendum process. And another possibility is a legal action to get an independent judge to take a look at the apparent conflict of interest surrounding Katcho’s vote.
One silver lining in all of this mess is that two of the Amigos will be riding off into the sunset come Jan. 1.
Ain’t democracy grand!
James Duenow is a San Luis Obispo attorney. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 12410, SLO, CA 93406.