In one of their final decisions on the Board of Supervisors, lame-duck supervisors Jerry Lenthall and Harry Ovitt joined Katcho Achadjian in a vote
to approve Santa Margarita Ranch development—a housing project with significant environmental consequences and many opponents.
The vote is tentative until Dec. 16 when the board will have to make findings on why the project should be built in spite of 10 unavoidable impacts to traffic, water supply, habitat, agriculture, and air pollution, to name a few.
The Planning Commission voted 4-1 to deny the project after five public hearings, which the public and one commissioner said had only scratched the surface of the project’s problems. Ranch owners appealed to the Board of Supervisors and will now get their project, barring a vote swing in the next month.
Under the tentative vote, ranch owner Doug Filliponi, one of the members of Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC, has permission to build 111 homes as an agriculture cluster. There are further plans to build out another 400 homes, a golf course, a clubhouse, restaurants, an amphitheater, galleries, gift shops, wineries, and an executive retreat on the rest of the 14,000-acre ranch outside the small town of Santa Margarita.
But even this first development comes with more impacts than any other project in SLO County, officials said.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that this project is really a difficult project to support,” County Planner Bill Robeson told supervisors.
Filliponi and his team of representatives argued that Santa Margarita Ranch was picked on more than other ag clusters the county has approved. They said the Environmental Impact Report overstated the impacts, and other criticisms by planning staff were at best misleading and at worst flat wrong.
They brought two boxes of new materials to the hearing, which will add to another 1,000 pages of staff reports. Many called the move a way to flood the public record and make a court challenge too difficult. But Santa Margarita Ranch will probably end up in court unless the project’s scope and impacts are significantly reduced before the next board meeting, according to Santa Margarita Area Residents Together President John Beccia.
In the end, the applicant’s argument for appeal was enough to earn a board majority despite protests that the project conflicts with the county’s most basic smart-growth principles.
Lenthall and Ovitt will be replaced in January by what many believe will be a new left-leaning, slow-growth board. Patterson and Gibson tried to continue the Santa Margarita hearing to January but were outvoted. Patterson said there was a less destructive project buried in the proposal, but added that the ranch owners had refused twice to change their design.
Gibson argued that there was no way to override many of the project’s impacts. He challenged Lenthall, Ovitt, and Achadjian to show that about 20 acres of prime agricultural soil would not be lost. Lenthall responded by saying he had walked the project site and did not see any prime soil. Environmental Specialist Lynda Auchinachie quickly pointed out that prime soil has to be tested and can’t just be seen, gathering chuckles from the tired audience.
Dozens of others protested during hours of public testimony. A few spoke in favor of the project, but the overwhelming majority was firmly opposed.
“This project is apparently record-breaking in the scope of its rule-breaking,” said former county supervisor David Blakely.