After nearly four years, the contentious Santa Margarita Ranch project is finally before a judge. And though a decision is somewhere around three months away, it appears the judge has some issues with how the project made its way before him.
The proposed development calls for a high-end residence subdivision on roughly 3,800 acres, 10 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo. Nothing has been built on the land since the project was approved in 2008, save for grapevines.
In the final days of 2008, the county board of supervisors at the time—which included now-former supervisors Katcho Achadjian, Jerry Lenthall, and Harry Ovitt—narrowly approved the project in a 3-2 vote, overruling concerns of their own planning commission and county staff in the process.
Though the county was originally named in the lawsuit, the current board of supervisors voted to remain neutral in the case, deputy county counsel Tim McNulty told New Times. That leaves attorneys for Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC to face arguments that the project was rushed and the environmental report associated with it was inadequate and sloppy.
On Nov. 16, attorneys for the nonprofit North County Watch (NCW) and the Endangered Habitats League met with the Ranch’s attorneys before San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford to lay out their arguments. McNulty and County Supervisor Jim Patterson had a front row seat.
From the onset, Crawford indicted he had made some determinations in the matter, but allowed both sides three minutes apiece to argue over a laundry list of issues from environmental impacts to development policy.
Basically, NCW wants the development permit for the project to be revoked and the environmental impact report to be revised and recirculated to address their concerns.
Firstly—and probably most importantly—the organizations contend that the project’s original environmental impact report never satisfied California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, for a number of reasons, including its expected impact on greenhouse gas emissions, which NCW attorneys Sara Clark and Ellison Folk argued didn’t take into account all potential sources, including energy consumed in association with treating and transporting water for the project. It’s currently slated to rely on the new Nacimiento pipeline for water.
According to Clark and Folk, to the extent that the report does identify mitigation measures, it doesn’t include language to ensure that the measures will actually be adopted.
“By failing to identify the full range of measures available and by failing to ensure they are enforced over the lifetime of the Project, the EIR violates one of the most basic requirements of CEQA,” the attorneys contend.
Furthermore, Clark argued that the project’s report didn’t analyze impacts to some biological resources, such as native grasslands. Though the developers argued the grasslands aren’t rare—and hence, the impacts are minimal—NCW attorneys shot back that the native grasslands provide a crucial habitat for a number of special status plant and animal species, including the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, and native plants, such as the SLO mariposa lily and morning glories.
Santa Margarita Ranch attorney William Walter contended that the project has been needlessly delayed, and that concerns over impacts to wildlife have been overblown.
“I’m sure they weren’t looking for elephants, but I’m sure they could have found them,” he argued.
Crawford questioned how the developer would mitigate impacts to wildlife if the report found any.
“The report said it would address the issue if possible. But I don’t know what ‘if possible’ means,” he said. “Would you be willing to give up lots if there are impacts found? I’m wondering where this all leads,” he said.
The lawsuit also questions the project’s effect on local air quality, given the added traffic and construction. It’s expected to impact up to 400 oak trees, and increase traffic somewhere to the tune of 40 percent, Clark said, as well as increase Santa Margarita’s growth by 25 percent.
“To say that’s not significant flies in the face of reason,” Clark noted.
Crawford called out the SMR attorneys as to why their clients hadn’t even tried to appease the planning commission or come back with a revised project before immediately appealing the decision to the board of supervisors.
“Why was process pushed through without making this study?” Crawford asked, questioning why the applicants insisted on a straight up-or-down vote from the commission. “I would ask why it was accelerated before the change of the board.”
“There was a consensus [that] more and more hearings would not change the recommendation of the commission, and that we needed to go before the board,” Walter responded. He said the thought was that the process before the planning commission “would not be a fair one.”
“I don’t think the court looks into the motivations,” Walter added. “The findings are the findings.”
Folk didn’t have much of a chance to speak at the hearing, as Crawford held off on issues regarding the county’s general plan. According to the lawsuit, the county’s planning commission noted many inconsistencies between the project and the county’s general plan, namely its conflict with the county’s Agriculture and Open Space Element policy, which specifically prohibits more than one primary residence per 20-acre parcel.
Following the hearing, NCW president Susan Harvey told New Times that Clark presented the organization’s case well, and she expects Crawford to agree that there are too many questions about the project.
Santa Margarita Ranch developers Doug Filliponi and Karl Wittstrom couldn’t be reached for comment as of press time.
Arguments will commence before Crawford on Jan. 4 in the Paso Robles branch of the San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.