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SLO residents prep for legal fight with city over development at 71 Palomar Ave.

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Canopies of oaks, eucalyptuses, pines, and at least five other tree species tower over San Luis Obispo’s historic Sandford House. Their intertwining branches sway in a late afternoon wind, just as they have for decades. The 1.3-acre property is home to 59 trees—including one Norfolk pine taller than 90 feet—and they provide nesting habitat for birds like the Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks.

Ever since noisy Cal Poly fraternities moved out of the late 19th century Sandford House some years ago, the site’s tranquil urban forest has provided a welcome buffer between the bustling traffic on Ramona Street and Foothill Boulevard and the adjacent residential neighborhood—called the Anholm District—under the Cerro San Luis Mountain.

“It’s an oasis,” said Lydia Mourenza, a neighbor to the Sandford House for 28 years. “It’s really a unique property; I’m not sure what else in town would be an equivalent to it.”

But the scene at 71 Palomar Ave. could be in for a dramatic change. On April 4, the SLO City Council gave final approval to a housing development proposed on the property, for six new apartment buildings to house 33 units. The development involves the removal of 55 trees on the site, and the lifting and moving of the Sandford House to a different location on the property. Those impacts, and others, have neighbors like Mourenza fighting the project.

“The birds will have nothing to come back to,” Mourenza said.

After she and a fellow neighbor Teresa Matthews failed to sway the City Council with an appeal on April 4, Mourenza is mulling over taking legal action against the city that could force the developer, Loren Riehl, to conduct a full environmental impact report for the project. 

History and housing

Development has never come easy in SLO. Recently, residents have expressed substantial heartache over “infill” projects like the one proposed at 71 Palomar Ave., which results in higher density rather than sprawl. It’s the type of housing growth that the City Council has vouched for in its recent planning.

In one way, the project on Palomar Avenue is unique in that it’s home to a historic building amid an urban forest. But in another way, the site fits the bill for what the city is looking for with a housing project—it’s zoned appropriately and located close to the transit and commercial centers on Foothill Boulevard.

“This is the type of project that we’ve pushed for,” City Councilman Aaron Gomez told a packed City Hall on April 4. “There are some realities we as a community have to face. We have not kept up with the housing demand. … It’s tough. It’s not fun to change. It’s not fun to cut down trees.”

To the City Council members who voted for the project—Gomez, Dan Rivoire, and Carlyn Christianson—their approval was all about boosting the city’s housing stock, which is named as a major city goal. Since 2014, 712 housing units have either been built or approved for construction in SLO. But the city still needs to get 432 more units through the planning process by 2019, according to the goals outlined in the housing element of the city’s general plan. Of the 33 housing units included in the project, four will be deed-restricted for very low-income renters—a sorely needed area of housing.

Accompanying the council’s interest in housing, the city is also bound by state laws, like the Housing Accountability Act, which take away some of localities’ discretion to approve or deny housing projects, since housing is a major need throughout the state.

But for residents like Mourenza, housing in itself isn’t reason enough to push forward a development, especially when it has impacts on an existing neighborhood, dozens of trees, and a historic resource like the Sandford House.

“It seems to be housing at all costs,” Mourenza said.

SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon felt similarly. She sided with the neighbors’ appeal and called it the “hardest decision” she’s faced so far as mayor.

“I feel like the box that says we could build this development has definitely been checked,” Harmon said in her closing comments at the council meeting. “But, for me, the box that says we should build this development has not been checked.”

Residents are allowed 30 days to challenge the city’s approval of the project in SLO County Superior Court, and Mourenza with backing from the neighborhood, is preparing to take action. She believes that the developer and the city have either downplayed or ignored the potential impacts of the project and must consider a full environmental impact report before moving forward.

“I’m not against all development,” she noted. “I just don’t think you need to destroy neighborhoods for it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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