Forget Wal-Mart. The latest development issue roiling Atascadero is how far back new buildings must be from the city's creeks and rivers.
Opponents of a creek setback ordinance advanced by the City Council in May are hopeful they've acquired enough signatures to clear the first hurdle in their attempt to have the decision repealed either by the council or by city voters.
The ordinance would generally prohibit new building within 35 feet of existing "reservation" boundaries along Atascadero, Graves, and Boulder creeks, though it sets up a process for exemptions once certain environmental studies have been done. It would also prohibit building within 35 feet of the Salinas River's high-water mark.
Although it's not vastly different from an interim ordinance that was put in place in 2005 and expired 18 months later, the latest action has aroused genuine passions, with shouting matches reported outside of grocery stores where petitions have been circulated.
City Clerk Marcia McClure Torgerson is urging folks on both sides to relax.
"I don't want any kind of riots going on," she said. "This is just a process. Everyone take a breath and calm down."
She said she's received calls of complaints of people believing petition-seekers had provided false information about the effort.
"I'm cautioning people to make sure they read these petitions before they sign them," she said.
Jolene Horn, one of the organizers of the effort, said people are wrongly associating the creek referendum petition with a different ongoing initiative to recall council members Mike Brennler and Ellen Beraud. Some are also tying the creek petition to the Wal-Mart debate, she said.
"This is not about the recall. I repeat, this is not about the recall," Horn said. "This is just about the facts, and there's no reason for any kind of drama or confrontations."
Horn said she and her husband, both real estate agents, became involved after realizing the ordinance could impact their plans to develop a creekside parcel they own.
Horn said she's concerned not only that the studies that would be required for new building within the setback would be prohibitively expensive, but that it could be the first step toward the city taking control over owners' property, possibly for creekside public trails.
"It's very subtle, very innocuous, and very dangerous, because they're trying to tell us what we can do with our private property," she said. "It goes against the 5th Amendment and the 14th Amendment."
Brennler, the mayor pro tem, sees the creek setback effort as closely tied to the effort to recall him and Beraud.
"The same people seem to be involved. That would be the nexus," he said.
Beraud, appearing on KPRL radio, put it even more bluntly: "I do think the referendum may be linked to the recall against Mike Brennler and myself," she said. The idea, they both suspect, is to try to link them to a controversial action that they hadn't yet voted on at the time the recall effort was launched. The creek issue was set in motion by the previous council, but both now support the setback.
Horn and her fellow setback opponents have had to move fast. The law gives them 30 days after a city action to launch a repeal effort. They'll need 1,611 verified signatures of city residents 10 percent of voters to succeed. Once signatures have been verified by Torgerson, the city council will have the option of repealing the measure outright or putting it to a vote in a general election or holding a special election, which would be paid for from city coffers.
To make things more complicated, setback opponents have to repeat the entire effort twice. They'll have to repeal both an amendment to the city's general plan this is the one that's due June 8 and repeat the effort within 30 days of when the city's actual ordinance gets final approval, expected on June 12.