Arroyo Grande neighbors say Elm Street plan doesn’t fit in

Almost 30 rental units, plus a commercial building, are not in keeping with the southside area of one-story homes, residents say

clambert@thetribunenews.comSeptember 3, 2012 

A plan to build apartments in southern Arroyo Grande — which city officials say are sorely needed — has drawn opposition from longtime residents who say the project is out of character with their neighborhood of one-story homes.

For decades, a 1.27-acre property has sat vacant at South Elm Street and The Pike, across the street from a farm and the Halcyon Cemetery.

Covered in sand and ice plants, the site has been the focus of several proposed projects, including senior housing and townhomes, though none have been built.

Now, a new plan has been approved by the city’s Planning Commission and quickly appealed by several upset neighbors to the Arroyo Grande City Council. It will be heard there Sept. 25.

Property owners Peter Burtness and Annie Roberts of Santa Barbara want to construct 23 two-bedroom apartments and five studio apartments designed mainly as duplex units. They also plan to include a 1,200-square-foot commercial building and 63 parking spaces.

“There is no shortage in demand for a good apartment unit,” said Burtness, a Cal Poly grad. “The type of people who will live in these units will be young professionals; people who can’t afford to put a large down payment and are trying to save for it.”

Arroyo Grande officials have made it a goal to increase the number of rental units in the city.

“It would serve a population in need of housing around here,” said community development director Teresa McClish. The site has long been reserved under city land-use laws for mixed use, defined as various combinations of residential, office and commercial uses.

But nearby residents view the project as an outlier that will change the nature of their neighborhood and increase traffic and safety issues.

“We are not opposed to having apartments behind us, but it is the density of the project that is the issue,” resident Teri Peterson wrote in a letter to the project owners and Arroyo Grande planning commissioners.

“It is too close to our property line, there is insignificant parking … and there are too many people and too much additional traffic with the commercial use added on this site,” she wrote.

Her neighbors have other concerns. They worry the project will drain water onto their properties, that future residents of the two-story apartments will be able to see into their homes, and that their yards will be torn up should the developer move the existing utility lines underground as required by the city.

Burtness said he’s made efforts to respond to residents’ concerns. For example, windows have been relocated to give homeowners more privacy and an on-site manager will ensure people park in their garages.

“We tried to build the lowest profile two-story that we could do,” he said.

Residents, however, don’t feel as though all their concerns have been addressed, or that they’re being heard. “If you look around, there’s not another building that looks the same, no two-story apartments in the area,” said resident Larry Royal.

A few of the planning commissioners said they liked the project’s Mediterranean style but wondered whether the commercial building was out of place with the rest of the project.

The commercial building is not required, but having it allows the property owners a higher density, McClish said. Without it, the owners must reduce the number of apartments or offer low-income housing.

“I’m just not feeling that it’s really serving the community, which is I think the intent of the whole office mixed-use thing,” said Commission Chair Elizabeth Ruth.

In the end Ruth voted, along with commissioners Jennifer Martin and Kristen Barneich, to approve the project. Commissioner Lisa Sperow dissented; commissioner John Keen was absent.

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