Long road still ahead for Santa Margarita project



The Santa Margarita Ranch project has been approved, but the fight is far from over; project opponents are gearing up to sue.

Nothing is on paper yet, but members of the smart-growth nonprofit North County Watch say they intend to file a lawsuit to overturn the approval.

“At this point we’re committed to moving ahead,” President Sue Harvey said. And moving ahead means suing both the county and developers. Harvey said she expected papers to be filed before the end of January.

Throughout the process, critics have slammed the 10 unavoidable environmental impacts that 111 homes and 300-plus new residents would bring to the Santa Margarita area; future related projects could add more than 400 additional homes, more than 1,000 residents, and a slathering of recreation facilities such as a golf course and bed and breakfast lodgings.

The project has also been criticized for being out of sync with county policies, particularly the ag cluster ordinance under which it passed. Those arguments and more will be made when the lawsuit is filed, Harvey said. She added that the first obstacle will be gathering enough volunteers and funds for the looming court battle, “but it’s going to waste a lot of people’s resources and it’s unfortunate, very unfortunate.”

Former supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt, along with returning Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, voted to approve the project with findings and conditions provided by the applicant, Doug Filipponi, and his representatives.

At the Dec. 23 hearing where the matter was passed, Planning Director Vic Holanda laid into the developers for such practices as sending his staff text messages with last-minute changes to the findings and conditions. County planners worked through the weekend to update the staff report based on the developer’s findings (under an earlier direction from a board majority), but continued to receive developer suggestions up to the final hearing day, Holanda said.

Holanda said the staff was put in the “untenable position” where they had to write findings of approval they did not “professionally agree with.”

County Counsel Jim Jones said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on any county liability before a lawsuit has been filed and reviewed.

Although many residents have threatened lawsuits, North County Watch will take the lead when the papers are actually filed. The group has already hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, a San Francisco law group that specializes in land-use issues and appeals. Other groups, including Santa Margarita Area Residents Together and ECOSLO, have pledged to provide North County Watch with additional support.

“We’re taking a back seat to North County Watch on the lawsuit,” SMART President William Miller said.

SMART will continue to fight the project on another front: the Fair Political Practices Commission. The group maintains that Achadjian had a potential conflict of interest and should not have voted.

Achadjian owns shares of both the Santa Lucia Bank and Mission Community Bank, according to economic statements. Filipponi has borrowed from Santa Lucia Bank in the past and SMART representatives worry that the Santa Margarita Ranch project will be funded by loans from both banks, where ranch owners sit on the board of directors and Achadjian holds shares. Therefore, group members claim that Achadjian could profit from his “yes” vote.

Achadjian said he received several legal opinions that confirmed there was no conflict in his vote. One of those was from the FPPC, although that opinion did not directly address the shares he holds.

“I serve on numerous boards and not-for-profits,” he said. “I know many people countywide. I look at each project on its on merit and vote accordingly … ”

SMART representatives filed a separate complaint with the FPPC in November regarding the shares, but a ruling was not made before county supervisors approved the project.

FPPC spokesman Roman Porter could not estimate how long a ruling would take, but said if a conflict is found, Achadjian could face fines of $5,000 per violation and critics could gain a foothold to have a court void the project approval.

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