Most land-use policies in SLO County have evolved to stop projects like San Miguel Ranch. With 21 unavoidable environmental impacts and county planners recommending the project for denial, it begs the question: How does a project so clearly weighed down with complications get so far in the application process?
County planning commissioners will begin public hearings for the San Miguel Ranch project on Sept. 10. Under the proposed design 389 homes would be built on 550 acres that are currently outside the small town of San Miguel. County planners estimate the development would bring in 1,179 new residents—nearly twice the current population of the town—and they’ll all need wastewater services that don’t yet exist.
San Miguel Ranch would require decision makers to rezone the property from agricultural to a mix of residential and commercial. Other agencies would need to redraw the town limits to incorporate the project, build utility lines to serve an influx of new neighbors, and ensure there are enough police officers to serve the population.
Simply put, San Miguel Ranch is a tough sell for approval. Even developer Brent Grizzle thinks there’s a more feasible option buried somewhere beneath the current design.
“We think there may be a better and smarter project,” he told county planning commissioners during an informational hearing on Aug. 27.
Already, county planners have spent hundreds of hours working on the project. The environmental impact report alone cost Grizzle about $400,000.
County planners characterized San Miguel Ranch as one of the largest local projects to be proposed, with more impacts than almost any preceding project. Grizzle, a developer who’s built in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, bought the ranch property about six years ago. As proposed now, the project conflicts with nearly every county policy developed under the broad scope of “smart growth.”
Planner Steve McMasters told planning commissioners the project is “inconsistent with most of the strategic growth policies.” Building the project would remove hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land, increase air pollution, create urban sprawl, and place houses within spitting distance of Camp Roberts.
San Miguel Ranch could have houses as close as 715 feet from the Camp Roberts boundary, which would put them two miles from a weapons-training area and directly under two military flight paths.
“They’re gonna be knocked right out of their beds,” one San Miguel resident told planning commissioners.
Reading a prepared speech, Grizzle told commissioners and a spattering of San Miguel residents the project is still malleable and he’s willing, even excited, to make changes.
But what is the smarter project? No one has a firm answer. Grizzle told New Times he is considering reducing the sprawl by condensing the scope from large ranchettes to small lots.
Changing the design isn’t as simple as it sounds. Gary Davis chairs the seven-member San Miguel Advisory Council that voted unanimously against the project earlier this year. When New Times asked if there is a middle-ground option, Davis said simply: “I don’t know.”
In 2005, county supervisors gave Grizzle permission to pursue a General-Plan amendment from agricultural to residential. Now there are new supervisors and arguably a new mindset on how the county should grow. County policies on growth and air quality weren’t in place when Grizzle first began the project, he said. So in order to meet the new rules he wants to tweak the existing design.
But if Grizzle redesigns his project, he may also have to recirculate the EIR to the public. Former council chair Denis Degher said a redesign would also place more burden on county planners and cost more for taxpayers.
“Should the commission get in the habit of redesigning projects on the public’s dime?” he asked commissioners. “Where does it all end?”
Degher also couldn’t say what a compromise would look like, only that the current design won’t fit with the town.
“I have no agenda here, I just think it’s a bad design,” he told New Times. “It’s bad timing for it. It’s the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong location.” A better project would be built within the town borders, he added.
As Supervisor Frank Mecham put it, Grizzle already has two strikes against him: County planners and the advisory council are recommending the project not be built. County planners are recommending the project be denied because it doesn’t fit county policies. But how did it get this far? Why weren’t the problems addressed before so much time and energy was invested? Mecham said he didn’t know, but it’s something he’ll be asking when the board of supervisors weighs in, whenever that is.
“If [developers] think that they’re on an uphill battle, then they have to make that call,” Mecham said. “… But they should be made aware of that early on.”
Grizzle seemed to agree.
“We would have enjoyed more commun-ication from the staff,” he said, “and it would have helped the process.”
But planners have recommended denial since the beginning, McMasters said. The decision was out of planners’ hands once county supervisors authorized them to process the General Plan amendment.
He added: “At any time they could have pulled the plug on it.”
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley @newtimesslo.com.