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Santa Margarita Ranch is still making history

A proposed development sets a county record for unavoidable environmental impacts

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Described as an island of homes surrounded by the sea of Santa Margarita Ranch, the little community of Santa Margarita is feeling inundated by a tsunami-sized wave of potential impacts, according to some residents.

THE DOCUMENT HAS LANDED :  A recently released 10-pound draft environmental impact report details impacts of future development to the community of Santa Margarita, surrounded by the Santa Margarita Ranch, pictured here. - PHOTO BY KATHY JOHNSTON
  • PHOTO BY KATHY JOHNSTON
  • THE DOCUMENT HAS LANDED : A recently released 10-pound draft environmental impact report details impacts of future development to the community of Santa Margarita, surrounded by the Santa Margarita Ranch, pictured here.

# People living in the small town just over the Cuesta Grade from SLO are struggling under the weight of the most complex environmental impact report the county has ever seen.

The hefty, recently released EIR document points out all the "unavoidable" results of future development of the vast historic ranch that surrounds the town on all sides. Ranch developers, however, believe that some of the impacts are overstated.

"The community is shocked and outraged, and feels unempowered," said William Miller, a member of Santa Margarita Area Residents Together (SMART), a citizens group that's been fighting controversial development proposals for the ranch for nearly two decades.

"It's a big project, with big impacts, and a big document," he added.

SMART members are each analyzing separate chunks of the 10-pound, 1,000-page report.

Residents of Santa Margarita packed the community hall on a frigid night in mid-January to hear the details of the latest development plans for the 14,000-acre ranch. The EIR spells out the impacts of a proposed "agricultural residential cluster subdivision" with 112 houses and agricultural uses on 3,778 acres southeast of the town, near the middle of the ranch, as well as a future development program for the remainder of the ranch including another 400 homes, nine wineries and special event centers, lodging, a golf course, restaurants and shopping, a retreat center, a horse ranch, an amphitheater, and three places of worship.

The townsfolk pleaded with county planners to allow more time for reviewing the weighty report a request that was granted a week later, when the public comment period was extended to April 12, according to senior planner James Caruso.

Rob Rossi, who owns a portion of the ranch and is a partner in the limited liability corporation that is proposing the new ag cluster development, has only just cracked the cover of the thick report himself.

"It's pretty formidable," he said, adding that the proposed agricultural residential cluster subdivision is "designed well."

With a gated community of 112 homes on one- to two-acre parcels, plus two wineries and other agricultural uses, the project would add another 1,110 daily car trips to the roads of Santa Margarita, and result in the removal of 200 to 400 oak trees, according to the report.

Altogether, the EIR identifies 11 "significant and unavoidable (Class I) impacts" from the ag cluster subdivision, including impacts on agricultural resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, noise, transportation and circulation, visual resources, water, and wastewater. Other impacts can be reduced by a variety of mitigation measures, the report states.

"It's a record in the county, by far. Nothing else has ever even come close to that many Class I impacts," Caruso said in an interview after the community meeting.

The report a draft subject to change based on comments from the community and experts doesn't address the possible changes to the quality of life for Santa Margarita residents.

"The community wants to make sure any growth and development on the ranch doesn't change our quality of life adversely," said David Blakely, a former county supervisor who lives in the town.

"Santa Margarita is a unique town. People are neighbors and friends. They watch out for you. They do things to make the community better. It's not just another town. The people who live here realize it's a special place, and value that," Blakely added.

Visitors to the town notice its pedestrian-friendly ambience, where 4-H kids walk their goats, mothers push strollers as they jog, and adolescent girls ride their horses next to boys on skateboards on the tree-lined streets.

On the bulletin board outside the post office where residents walk to get their mail, next to a notice advertising a cowboy poetry reading, a thank-you note was posted after a fundraiser for a family whose breadwinner couldn't work due to an accident: "We are grateful to live in a community with so many wonderful people. Your support and donations have made it possible for us to move forward."

The views of the Santa Margarita Ranch from the town and from Pozo Road have remained unchanged for a century or more, as photos in the EIR show.

"The Santa Margarita Ranch exemplifies the vanishing face of California. This is your great-great-grandmother's California, a jewel that's right out there shining for everyone to see," said Sarah Christie, a SLO County planning commissioner who's followed the various development proposals for years.

"Although intangible, the historic past remains alive on the ranch, where one can walk in the footsteps of Chumash villagers, Franciscan friars, Spanish and Mexican ranchers, and General Murphy and his vaqueros," the EIR states.

For Karl Wittstrom, another partner in the ranch ownership corporation, it's the stewardship of the ranch in recent years that helps make it special, with returning native grasses and oak seedlings that he said are due to its careful management.

"I just want to raise cattle and grapes, and pay down my mortgage," Wittstrom said. "Farming is a treacherous business. Why put in houses? To pay down my mortgage.

"I've said a hundred times, 'Why not put the town next to the town and leave the ranch alone?' We need someone to step up and say that," he continued.

The EIR spells out various alternatives that would put new development adjacent to the existing town rather than throughout the ranch.

According to J. William Yates, an attorney who specializes in California's environmental laws, alternatives such as the ones listed in the report are a form of mitigation that can eliminate impacts.

"The courts have made it clear that consideration of alternatives is not just a planning exercise," Yates said in a phone interview from his Sacramento office.

Rossi concluded, "We understand these issues are difficult. We're here to work with the community, and we hope they'll work with us."

INFOBOX: A voluminous report

The Draft Environmental Impact Report for Santa Margarita Ranch Agricultural Cluster Subdivision and Future Development Plan and the 100-page executive summary are available from SLO County senior planner James Caruso (781-5702 or jcaruso@co.slo.ca.us) and on the county web site at www.sloplanning.org.

Freelance journalist Kathy Johnston may be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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