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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Two Big San Luis Obispo County Land Deals are in the works:

Developer Angry Over County Study of Santa Margarita Ranch Development

SLO Land Conservancy Announces Conservation Opportunity at Eagle Ranch


Santa Margarita Ranch report challenged

Developers looking to build near a rural town say an impact study overstates the project’s effects

By Stephen Curran

Aug. 18, 2007

Development on the 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch could turn the hamlet of Santa Margarita into a town that includes three houses of worship, nine wineries, shops, and other components. Only one development is moving forward — a subdivision near the cemetery east of town. But other growth could follow.


The developers behind the controversial Santa Margarita Ranch have challenged portions of a county-sponsored study detailing how the large project could affect the North County.

Developers Doug Filliponi and Rob Rossi said Monday that a draft environmental impac study unveiled in January overstated information about the project’s effects on nearby trees, water use and visibility.

Their disagreement has prompted county planners to begin a second report addressing new information presented by the pair, project manager James Caruso said.

The first draft of the report noted 11 “significant but unavoidable” effects, a number that the county says is particularly high, including the removal of 200 to 400 oak trees.

“Never in the original design did we suggest the removal of anywhere near 200 to 400 trees,” Filliponi said. “… We just don’t feel the (environmental report) correctly accounted for that.”

The developers also challenged the county’s assertion that the project would disturb 32 sensitive archaeological sites. Filliponi said they have worked with local Chumash representatives and have prepared 2,000 acres for vineyards without disturbing underground archeological sites.

He and Rossi, who along with developer Karl Wittstrom constitutes the Santa Margarita Ranch LLC, were among the scores of individuals to respond to the county’s environmental review, billed by planners as one of the most complicated in the region’s history.

In comments included with the draft report, many residents questioned the project’s effects on local resources, including air and water quality. Others weighed in with concerns about how such a project could affect their property values.

The developers said they have made minor revisions to the Santa Margarita Ranch plan, including the movement of between seven and 12 lot lines.

Once complete, the project could include nine wineries, 400 homes in addition to the 111 homes proposed in the first phase, three houses of worship, a golf course, a horse ranch, a bed and breakfast, restaurants and a sewage treatment plant on about 14,000 acres surrounding Santa Margarita. The developers say it would be built in phases, the last of which is at least three years away.

Meanwhile, critics worry the nearly decade-old plan could dramatically change the character of the rural town of 1,100.

Some critics say they are worried about what planners call “piecemealing,” wherein developers push large projects forward for approval piece by piece, instead of all at once. If the developers of Santa Margarita Ranch do that, the critics say, the full impact of the project on the community would not be understood until too late.

But Caruso said that any such addition would trigger a thorough review that would also include public comment.

Caruso said the county’s consultants had begun a second draft of the environmental study specifically to respond to the developers’ concerns about the initial findings. That analysis will be available in October, he said.

For more background:

San Luis Obispo Land Conservancy Announces Conservation Opportunity at Eagle Ranch
View of Eagle Ranch


Working together to preserve a working Landscape of over 3000 acres ---The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County and the Smith Family are pleased to announce that they have entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement, a crucial first step towards protecting a 3,000 acre portion of the Eagle Ranch. The rugged and magnificent family ranch is located just south of the City of Atascadero. The Smith Family has owned the land since 1964, and has continuously managed it as a working cattle ranch and wildlife refuge since that time.

The goal of the conservation agreement with the Land Conservancy is to protect the ranch’s agricultural heritage and ensure the continuation of its long-standing family operation. The agreement would also shelter diverse oak woodlands and natural plant communities, the headwaters of several local creeks, and critical homes for a multitude of fish and wildlife species.

“We are truly honored by the trust that the Smith Family has demonstrated in agreeing to work with the Land Conservancy for the long-term protection and stewardship of their beautiful ranch. The natural, scenic, and agricultural characteristics of the property represent the exact same values that are articulated in our mission statement – it couldn’t be a better fit for us,” said Bob Hill, the non-profit organization’s Conservation Director.

Eagle Ranch is bordered by US Forest Service land to the south and west, including Cuesta Ridge and Cerro Alto. Its conservation would help create a larger mosaic of protected private and public lands in the Santa Lucia mountain range. “The further back into the ranch you go, the more wild it gets,” said Hill, “surely this land represents what the California of old must have looked like." The ranch is also notable for its significant water resources, especially the headwaters of Atascadero Creek, known to still carry steelhead trout. “The fact that the natural springs on the ranch continue to provide enough water to the creek to support trout year round is truly remarkable, and this is just one of many reasons why the opportunity we have today to reach a conservation agreement for the ranch with the Smith Family is so important” noted Hill.

The conservation agreement will retire “significant development potential,” according to Hill, while allowing for continued cattle ranching, natural resource protection, and possibly limited public access where appropriate. “Three generations of our family have been fortunate enough to enjoy this unique property, and we are excited by the opportunity to protect its most important features for future generations,” said Greg and Jeff Smith. It is anticipated that other portions of the ranch, comprised of existing lots from the original Atascadero Colony, will become a part of the City of Atascadero . The Land Conservancy and the Smith Family will continue to work on the details in the coming year, and expect to finalize an agreement for the landmark conservation gift sometime in late 2008.

“Three generations of our family have been fortunate enough to enjoy this unique property,
and we are excited by the opportunity to protect its most important features for future generations,” said Greg and Jeff Smith, the Property Owners.

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