For those who thought the Santa Margarita Ranch development caused a stir, stay tuned. A plan to develop the Laetitia winery estate south of Arroyo Grande is heading down the same contentious path.
Laetitia’s developers hope to build their project as an “agricultural cluster” like Santa Margarita Ranch. And like critics of the plan for Santa Margarita Ranch, critics of the Laetitia project say the plan is not agricultural in nature, and is not really clustered.
If approved, Laetitia would have a 1,910-acre subdivision sandwiched between Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.
An ag cluster is a SLO County land-use designation that encourages tight groups of construction on agricultural land in order to preserve open space. Encourage, however, is about as strict as the rules get. There’s not much definition about what the word “cluster” actually means, explained Agricultural Commissioner Bob Lilley. Lilley helped develop the ag cluster policy in the late 1980s, but said the original intent has been lost in a mess of loopholes and loose interpretations.
“The original intent was to have an alternative to cookie-cutter subdivisions,” Lilley said. “The cluster, if done properly, is clearly a better alternative than that.”
Lilley’s not alone. Critics say developers have exploited gray areas in ag cluster rules, allowing them to push through projects that are more akin to urban developments than farm houses.
A Laetitia opposition group, Los Berros Canyon Association, has already raised concerns about the project’s impacts, particularly to the local water supply and loss of open space. In its current form, Laetitia would create 23 unavoidable impacts (class 1). That is more than double those of Santa Margarita Ranch, which had more class 1 impacts than any project brought before the county.
“Typically agricultural areas have not at all seen this type of development,” said County Environmental Specialist Lynda Auchinachie, who is on the team of planners for Santa Margarita Ranch.
The total Laetitia project would create 102 one-acre housing lots along with a dude ranch, equestrian center, pool house, and a recreation center complete with a tennis court.
A vineyard and winery already exist on the property. To make room for open-space buffer zones between buildings, 113 acres of the existing 185-acre vineyard would be destroyed and replaced elsewhere on the site.
“They are proposing to tear out parts of the vineyard to put in home sites, which my department completely opposes,” Lilley said.
A Laetitia representative could not be reached for comment before press time.
Former county supervisor David Blakely, one of the central opponents of the Santa Margarita Ranch project, said the implementation of ag clusters has strayed while in the hands of developers and a pro-development Board of Supervisors majority.
“It’s a great idea, but it’s being taken advantage of by people who are more interested in speculating and not saving ag land,” he said.
There has been a growing call for the county to reform its ag cluster policy, especially as the Santa Margarita Ranch development appears to be a sure thing (the project has tentative approval but still needs a final vote).
The Department of Agriculture has labeled ag cluster improvement a priority, but limited staff resources mean any permanent fix may be shelved for a while. Meanwhile holes in the policy mean that ag clusters can be subject to loose interpretations by whoever gets the final say.
“It’s ultimately a political decision,” Blakely said, “and we’re seeing that [with] Santa Margarita Ranch.”
Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, whose district includes Laetitia, admitted that there are cracks in the policy. Those cracks mean he has less ability to tighten the screws on developers who drift from the goal of preserving agricultural land.
“Until we take care of the policy, this is always going to be a problem,” he said.
Staff writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.