Home on the ranch? Developers face opposition to Santa Margarita project
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has approved the first part of the controversial Santa Margarita Ranch development, which, if fully implemented, would change the face of a small community located just north of the Cuesta grade.
The phase of the project voted on late last year would carve 111 lots, each 1.5 to 2.5-acres in size, out of 3,778 acres of the ranch. Technically called an “agricultural cluster subdivision,” the homes would be grouped around existing woodlands and grazing pastures.
The plan calls for vineyards, open space and possibly a wide range of uses for the ranch property located halfway between the cities of San Luis Obispo and Atascadero. But opponents want to stop the project in its tracks and have taken steps to ensure that its approval won’t stick.
The three-phase development on the 14,000-acre ranch was introduced in 2003 by partners and longtime ranch owners Doug Filipponi, Karl Wittstrom and Rob Rossi, partners of Santa Margarita Ranch LLC. Rossi is well-known as a developer in Santa Barbara and SLO counties.
“We’ve been working tirelessly on this project for years now,” Filipponi said. “Karl and Rob and I have so much invested in this, and we really feel like this would usher in a new golden age for Santa Margarita.”
Despite the 3-2 board vote in favor of the project, Santa Margarita Ranch isn’t a slam dunk. Although a planning panel approved the project, it has been fiercely opposed by community groups and SLO County Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes the ranch.
William Miller of Santa Margarita Area Residents Together, or SMART, said that his organization would help fund a lawsuit filed by Sue Harvey of North County Watch, a nonprofit group that has taken aim at the project.
“Our legal strategy will hit all the high points, and we know we’ve got a great case,” Miller said. “SMART will fully support North County Watch in these legal proceedings.”
Miller said North County Watch has hired Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger of San Francisco, a firm specializing in land-use issues and appeals. Opponents are likely to claim that the project didn’t receive enough scrutiny prior to the vote, but Filipponi maintains that the opposite is true.
“This ranch is under a microscope,” he said. “This cluster is probably the most studied subdivision I’ve heard of anywhere. This project has been reviewed more thoroughly than any other development I’ve ever heard of in the county.”
He said the project has been in progress for about 20 years and has survived five Planning Commission hearings and four Board of Supervisors hearings.
Wittstrom added that Santa Margarita Ranch’s agricultural cluster design is based on Varian Ranch in San Luis Obispo, which has been operating successfully since it was approved in 1987 and only had three Planning Commission hearings.
He said that similar projects such as Edna Ranch and Biddle Ranch, also in Arroyo Grande, went through one Planning Commission hearing each before being approved in 1993 and 2003, respectively.
Because the developers were required to submit a programmatic environmental impact report, or EIR, they had to map out any development they might ever consider bringing to the ranch, including additional homes, wineries, restaurants, shops and more.
“Not only did we have to pay for the EIR, but we had to refute some of its findings,” Filipponi said. “We had to pay them to drive a nail into us, and then pay another professional to pull it out. We paid almost as much to refute the EIR as we paid to have it done, and they don’t even believe the experts we hired.”
Patterson said that despite the Dec. 23 vote, he’ll stand firmly against the project.
“The residents of Santa Margarita are the ones that are going to bear the brunt of the consequences,” he said. “I’m concerned about the impact to the community, the additional traffic and the water issues. I just don’t feel that the benefits outweigh the consequences.”
The Dec. 23 approval came from the SLO County Board of Supervisors after a week of hearings that included three full days devoted to the project.
Wittstrom said he was enraged about how the ranch developers have been treated, adding that the Santa Margarita Area Advisory Committee voted 9-3 in favor of the project earlier this year.
“Nobody ever mentions that when they talk about the ranch,” he said. “People only remember the things about the ranch that they want to. There’s a double standard.”
Filipponi said the testimony in opposition to the ranch gaves a false impression. “For 30 years we’ve been contributing to the communities we live in, and now they’re making us out to look like criminals. But if anyone truly cares about this ranch, it’s myself and my partners.”
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