It’s a mixed bag for people challenging a major agricultural-residential cluster subdivision in rural Santa Margarita after a San Luis Obispo County judge released a long-awaited tentative ruling on the matter March 28.
The lawsuit, filed in 2009 by the nonprofit organizations North County Watch and the Endangered Habitat League, sought to strike down parts of an environmental impact report used in the narrow approval of the Santa Margarita Ranch L.L.C. project in the final days of 2008 by a lame-duck board of supervisors majority, who overrode their own planning commission’s denial of the project.
Though the county was initially named in the lawsuit, it’s taken a neutral stance in the proceedings.
The Santa Margarita Ranch, which sits on a property that dates back to its establishment as a Spanish land grant and Mexican rancho, consists of approximately 14,000 acres in what’s historically been used for grazing and crop production. The ranch project calls for 111 residential lots, five agricultural parcels, one 2.5-acre primary dwelling, and a headquarters site on a roughly 3,800-acre portion of the property.
The project calls for three phases of development: 30 to 40 lots would be developed in each phase over the next 20 or so years. The effort is expected to increase Santa Margarita’s growth by 25 percent, and will rely on the new Nacimiento pipeline for water.
Over four years, the project has drawn criticism from a number of groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, the California Oak Foundation, Morro Coast Audubon, Santa Margarita Area Residents Together, and ECOSLO.
The petitioners argued that the project wasn’t consistent with the Agriculture and Open Space Element of the county’s general plan, standards of which they claim would only allow for a total of 64 units on the property. Attorneys for the ranch’s developers argued that the county’s approval was legally sound, and that the project had been needlessly delayed.
In his ruling—which has yet to be finalized—Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford found that the project’s environmental impact report complied with terms of the California Environmental Quality Act, and that the project wasn’t inconsistent with the county general plan. Furthermore, Crawford rejected most of the petitioners’ environment-based arguments, including contentions that the project didn’t fully analyze impacts to native grasslands, and its impacts on a number of special-status plant and animal species, including the California red-legged frog and tiger salamander, as well as the SLO mariposa lily.
However, Crawford did find that the project will be in violation of local air quality standards, and that the 2008 board of supervisors “abused its discretion” by capping the project’s off-site mitigation fees at roughly $200 per unit.
But Crawford’s ruling doesn’t mean ground will be broken anytime soon.
Before grading or construction permits can be issued, he ruled, evidence supporting the off-site air mitigation fee must be submitted for review, and vernal pool studies for all biological aspects of the project must be completed and appropriate agency authorizations made.
“We’re disappointed with respect to the issues we raised regarding the general plan and the evidence we presented that the approval violated the plan and county ordinances,” North County Watch’s San Francisco-based attorney, Sara Clark, told New Times, adding that her clients are considering their next step.
Richard Monk, the Santa Barbara-based attorney for the Santa Margarita Ranch, L.L.C., didn’t return a request for comment, and no reply was on file with the court as of press time.
Both parties have until April 12 to file objections to Crawford’s ruling, and, based on the length of the 52-page document, it’s expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.