Behind San Simeon Creek campground near the coast of Cambria, a single-lane private road meanders over cow-studded hilltops and dips into valleys thick with ancient oak trees. Red Mountain Road is just a few miles long, but it takes a good 20 minutes to traverse. Steep inclines on loose gravel and several blind corners make the road downright treacherous, but Curtis Leslie is more than willing to make the drive every day so that he and his family can live on land akin to Elysian Fields. His expansive property is one of 11 in the area. Other houses can be seen here and there across the canyon, but the only neighborhood noise comes from screeching hawks and leaves in the wind.
“This is the way it’s been for years and years,” Leslie said one calm afternoon. “But it hasn’t been like this at all for the last few months.”
Leslie told New Times that construction crews armed with chainsaws, Bobcats, bulldozers, and 10-wheeler dump trucks had been working daily on nearby properties since summer of 2011. At first, Leslie believed from afar that the new owner was simply clearing brush, but as the work continued for months, he complained to the SLO County Planning and Building Department. On Jan. 18, a county code enforcer cited the property owner for “unpermitted construction” and shut down the operation.
John Hofschroer, the department’s public information supervisor, said the enforcer found that workers had diverted a portion of Van Gordon Creek to create a pond, graded nearly a mile of road near the environmentally sensitive stream, erected several permanent yurt-like structures, and built a family-sized dwelling high in a tree, all without permits. Discussion of potential charges and punishment are still pending, and the county can’t release pictures since they’re being used as evidence.
“We’re not talking about a kid’s fort,” Hofschroer said. “This thing is pretty impressive.”
Impressive, but not permitted. SLO County requires construction permits for jobs as small as interior remodeling and re-roofing. A high-end house in the sky certainly qualifies, and there’s evidence to suggest that the developer had no intention of stopping there.
In 2010, the normally stagnant market for properties on Red Mountain Road began to boom with a series of quick sales. Off the Grid, a limited liability corporation, bought 134.7 acres for $2.6 million in October of that year. The company bought another 80 acres on Sept. 20 of 2011 for $666,000. A week later, Red Mountain Farms LLC grabbed 107 acres for $624,000. Another company with a familiar but slightly different name, Off the Grid Mountain LLC, got another 63 acres valued at $1.3 million.
None of these companies has much of a web presence or seems to be selling anything to the public. They’re all registered in the real estate industry with the California Secretary of State, and they all list the same address in Rancho Dominguez, a Southern California location associated with Dynamic Medical Systems and its CEO David Robertson.
Robertson is also the executive officer of Centrally Grown, the company that bought The Hamlet at Moonstone Gardens this January and promptly closed the restaurant for extensive remodeling.
All together, the medical entrepreneur from the Los Angeles area suddenly took control of 384 acres and a classy eatery in rural Cambria.
Hofschroer said Robertson and his associates wasted no time asking the planning department what they could build on the newly acquired land. They called often to ask about zip-lining, bed and breakfast establishments, wine-tasting, and a new network of roads, possibly for ATV use.
“Since we were talking about ag land in the coastal zone, the answers were easy,” Hofschroer said. “No. No. No.”
Land near the coast gets special protection from a state commission charged with protecting beaches and improving public access. Construction is allowed in the coastal zone, but only with minimal impact on the landscape, and it can’t disrupt or supersede any potential use of the land for agriculture.
On March 13, the County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider recommendations to approve recreational development of agricultural land on a case-by-case basis. A zip-line operation recently built in Santa Margarita Ranch caused some controversy, but county staffers mostly agreed the zip line was secondary to the established farm. That’s not the case with the Robertson land.
Hofschroer got the impression that the group was “planning-savvy,” and that they were calling multiple members of county staff with different wordings of the same questions in the hopes that someone would finally say yes.
“You can tell when someone is trying to do something under the radar,” Hofschroer said, theorizing that they wanted to build a corporate retreat.
Despite repeated warnings against development, Hofschroer said, development moved forward.
From Leslie’s property, someone with binoculars can see two platforms in the treetops that might serve as launch pads for zip lining.
“I’ve got no problem with zip lining in general. It sounds pretty fun,” Leslie said. “What I don’t like is corporate billionaires who think they can ignore the rules and exploit our way of life.”
Another neighbor, Tim Winsor, owns a construction company and helped Robertson with some of the work. He told New Times that he delivered red rock used to pave pre-existing trails. He maintains that the offending pond was created after Robertson repaired an existing dam.
“You’re hearing complaints from a neighbor who is unhappy with everything out here,” Winsor said. “Mr. Robertson is cleaning up dead crap and actually helping the environment.”
The narrow road that services the area is maintained by the Creek Ranch Road Association(CCRA). Essentially, the property owners who use the road pay monthly dues to keep it in working order.
At a November meeting of the CRRA, the dues were raised from $200 to $687. Leslie believes the increased rates will dissuade anyone but Robertson from buying property in the valley. With four properties, Robertson got four votes in the matter, and the new revenue will be spent on road improvement and widening that could make it more commercially viable.
Though most of Centrally Grown’s Facebook page content has been removed, screen shots reveal it described the area as a luxury retreat, and screen captures from centrallygrown.com show plans for several structures, a “leprechaun forest,” and a vineyard. All that remains of the site is a logo featuring the tree house and a message that says, “... it’s growing season and we’re busy planting. Please check back soon.”
Robertson did not return requests for comment. ∆
Calendar Editor Nick Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.