The proposed Dana Reserve residential development project in Nipomo, if approved, would allow for some 1,290 dwelling units, including single family homes, apartments, and condominiums, plus commercial development on a 288-acre, largely wooded property just west of Highway 101 and south of Willow Road. To do this, the project will destroy most of the existing oak woodland on the site, bulldozing some 3,400 oak trees and associated habitat into oblivion.
This is not acceptable for a variety of reasons, discussed below. A smaller project can eliminate most of the impacts to the oaks and oak habitats, mitigate on-site for those impacts which do occur, and still provide a rich mix of housing and commercial opportunities to the community. The project is currently the subject of an environmental impact report (EIR).
• No mitigation for impacts to the natural environment is provided: The project will bulldoze some 3,400 coast live oak trees and associated wildlife habitat to provide about half of the proposed housing as tract homes. The project proposes two false mitigation measures to "offset" this loss: planting coast live oaks as street trees, and placing a conservation easement over a remote piece of steeply sloping hillside land miles away from the project site. These measures do not meet any mitigation standard, since mitigation is a means to counter the effect of an impact, in this case the loss of more than 3,400 trees and associated wildlife habitat. Planting of street trees will in no way compensate for the loss of an existing woodland. In addition, the land proposed as "mitigation" is remote, is not truly equivalent, and is not threatened in any way. Thus the loss of the oak woodland and wildlife habitat would not be mitigated at all.
It is important to point out that the project sponsors are requesting a permit for the tree removal as required under the county's Tree Protection Ordinance, and in doing so, make a mockery of the ordinance, which is intended to protect the trees.
• The project targets Nipomo with an undue burden that the entire county should be sharing: The Dana Reserve project proposes some 1,290 dwelling units on 288 acres; thus this one project, if fully built out, would absorb almost 40 percent of the county's state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). Further development in Nipomo will only exacerbate this imbalance, since Nipomo holds only about 25 percent of the population of the county's unincorporated area. Nipomo should not be the "fix-it" area for a perceived county-wide shortage of housing. A fair question to ask is, "Why do the thousands of approved-but-unbuilt-on lots throughout the county not count toward the RHNA mandate?"
• The Nipomo water supply is questionable: The health of the Nipomo groundwater basin is measured through a series of strategically placed wells on the Nipomo Mesa, and their combined information (monitored regularly) shows trends in the groundwater supply. This is known as the Key Wells index. Data from this index shows that the groundwater situation on the Mesa has been declining for years and currently is classified as being in "severe" overdraft. In order to offset the chronically declining water table on the Mesa, agreements were made several years ago to purchase water from the Santa Maria Valley. That water is available to shore up the current needs of the Mesa's residents and not to simply promote new development. Groundwater basins throughout San Luis Obispo County are in decline, and the current and future water supply situation is one of great concern. Therefore, such a large project is inappropriate. A smaller, more focused project would still allow for a mixed-use development serving the community, requiring less water, while still providing a reasonable portion of Nipomo's "need" under the RHNA.
• An environmentally superior project is feasible and has been proposed: We all agree that there is a genuine need for additional housing, particularly for the lower-cost housing that is not being provided for in the county at this time. Conservationists have called for a reduced project that would support the higher density development proposed near Highway 101. Their proposal asks to reduce the standard single-family lot portion of the project (which is what would destroy the oak woodlands) to the area outside of the woodland and allow for limited rural development on a 35-acre portion of the property's oak woodland. The remainder, covering most of the property, would be protected as open space. More than 90 percent of the oak woodland would be preserved in this way. This approach would include space for true on-site mitigation of the environmental impacts the project might still generate. Finally, this alternative would still allow for a project nearly 50 percent of the size of the proposed project, including all or nearly all of the project's "affordable" housing so clearly needed in the county. Δ
Neil Havlik served as SLO's natural resource manager for many years. Send a response for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.