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Up a creek?

Fish and Game takes some Cambria developers to court for streambed alterations

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Van Gordon Creek is hurting. The waterway is a tributary to San Simeon Creek and eventually the Pacific Ocean, but first it meanders through the halcyon hills of rural Cambria, where, earlier this year, New Times reported the unpermitted construction of an elaborate tree house, a pond, and about a mile of road.

Since then, the California Department of Fish and Game has inspected the area and found enough damage to file a lawsuit against the builders. According to the warden who oversaw the inspections, riparian plant life was ripped from riverbanks, large stones were used to fill shallow spots so cars could cross, bridges were built, and ample debris from road grading found its way into the water. The biggest impact came from the creation of a 5,700-square-foot pond, a change that limits water flow to the rest of the creek.

“[The damage] is fairly significant compared to other streambed alterations we’ve seen,” Warden Brian Meyer told New Times. “It appeared to be a commercial enterprise.”

New Times could find no formal surveys of the wildlife in Van Gordon Creek, but San Simeon Creek, which it feeds, is well documented as an environmentally sensitive and biologically unique habitat. Three species of federally protected animals call the creek home: the California red-legged frog, tidewater goby, and steelhead trout. Southwestern pond turtles and two-striped garter snakes can be seen in the creek. Though their populations are declining, they’ve been rejected as candidates for federal protection.

A 1993 survey by Fish and Game said San Simeon Creek is one of the few that supports all five species, and biologists found that they were doing well in the area. However, the report recommended that special care be given to maintain the habitat with a focus on protecting and restoring a natural water regime for the creek. The animals rely on ample freshwater from tributaries to offset the saltiness of encroaching seawater, the report said.

Meyer sent his findings to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office on May 15, urging the office to press charges against landowner Dave Robertson and his associates, Jeffrey Brown and George Christidis. The DA officially pressed charges on May 23. An arraignment was scheduled for July 9, but defense attorney Jeffrey Stein requested and received a postponement for July 23. Stein did not return requests for comment.

The men entangled in the case are connected to several companies that own land in rural Cambria: Red Mountain Farms LLC, Off the Grid LLC, and Centrally Grown LLC, which recently took over the Hamlet at Moonstone Gardens and promptly closed it for remodeling. Executive Director Brian Wright told New Times the restaurant will re-open soon and will be marketed as a sustainable and environmentally friendly eatery.

Since the case went to court, the defendants haven’t returned New Times’ requests for comment, but in e-mails exchanged after the initial story broke, Christidis told New Times that the construction was “well-intended” and that the property was enhanced for the enjoyment of the owner, his family, and friends. He admitted that the group asked county planners about potential commercial uses of the land, but said they abandoned those ideas long before construction began.

“We have no intention of building a luxury retreat,” Christidis wrote.

Because the properties are situated in the coastal zone, planners told the group they couldn’t use the land for anything but residential and agricultural purposes. That didn’t stop the group from making several improvements to the area, all without permits. Any construction near waterways requires an environmental review from a county-approved biologist, who will instruct builders on limitations and the best management practices to minimize impacts on wildlife.

If Judge Michael Duffy sides against the development group, it will be forced to repair the creek as much as possible. Anything that can’t be reversed will be assessed by a biologist and assigned a monetary value, which the defendants would have to pay into a general restoration fund that can be used for restoration projects statewide.

“It’s repairable, but it will never be exactly like it was,” Meyer said.

As for the unpermitted tree house construction, county Code Enforcement Supervisor Art Trinidade said the developers are being cooperative. Unless the group can move heaven and earth to get a lot line adjustment approved, they’ll have to dismantle the tree house piece by piece. A stop-work order has been placed on the property, but two permits have been issued on adjoining properties that are under the same ownership. Trinidade said those permits only allowed interior remodeling.

“This is something we take very seriously, but they’re working with us to resolve it,” Trinidade said.

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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