Atascadero's Eagle Ranch project reaches pivotal point

City may let the development advance after many years of planning

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comFebruary 25, 2013 

Greg Smith remembers long days working on fences as a teen in the 1960s at his grandparent’s sprawling cattle ranch in southwest Atascadero.

“We went there for vacations and summer jobs,” said Smith, one of four siblings who now own a property that’s poised to become the largest annexation in Atascadero’s history.

The Smith brothers — Greg, 60, and Jeff, 65  — are managers in Smith-Hobson LLC, a family real estate management company in Ventura that owns operations for cattle, lemons, avocados and vineyards in San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Ventura counties.

Their local endeavor, Eagle Ranch LLC, proposes using 3,460 acres for housing, a commercial center, a hotel and open space. The ranch’s rural hillsides are bordered by Los Padres National Forest near Atascadero.

Tonight, the long-discussed project will go before city leaders to determine whether enough information has been gathered to kick off a feasibility study to see how development could impact the existing community, giving a closer look at traffic, the environment and density of the development. The council would later use the study to determine whether to approve the project.

Over the years, the development has taken many forms, making it the center of nearly two dozen
town-hall meetings between the developers’ representatives and area residents used to a rural lifestyle.

The latest proposal calls for 494 single-family homes ranging from half-acre to 20-acre lots; 93 town homes, senior housing or apartments; a commercial village center; one hotel and one resort; a public park; and 16 miles of trails to be built over at least two decades. Seventy-three percent of the land would remain open space.

An additional 3,100 acres of ranch not part of the proposal is the subject of negotiations with the Land Conservancy of San Luis County for preservation.

Early history

Throughout the 1900s, the Smith brothers — and the Peabody family of Santa Barbara before them — tried to make money off the land with cattle grazing and fruit trees. Vineyards were even planted, according to the Smiths, but torn out in the 1920s because they didn’t work. A short growing season and north-facing slopes poor for grazing meant traditional land uses were not sustainable, the brothers said.

“To subsidize that, we’ve been selling property,” Jeff Smith said.

But in the early 2000s, they opted for a more planned approach.

“When we were looking to subdivide it to help meet the housing needs of Atascadero, it was suggested to us from the county, city and LAFCO (a local growth commission) to recluster the lots in a more sustainable way,” Greg Smith said.

Their vision: a development marketed as “country living,” surrounded a conservation easement, horse and hiking trails and a simple way of life anchored in nature.

Thus, Eagle Ranch the development was born.

Neighbors’ reaction

Neighbors say the Smith brothers and their consultants have been open to meeting with them and answering their questions.

But some still worry.

“I don’t have the sense as though there’s something afoot or anyone is doing something nefarious or doesn’t have a good intention,” resident Paul Hyman said. “But the thing is, we all hold different views.”

One issue, Hyman said, is what the term “rural” means.

Those who live in the area say they understand that the Smiths have a business plan, but they also want to keep their rural lifestyle — quiet surroundings, sprawling lots and starry sky.

“They have a formula, but we have a neighborhood and are trying to keep community here,” Hyman said.

To the Smiths, their vision of a rural development is making efforts to build roads that are narrow and follow the contours of existing land; doing as little grading as possible; staying off the ridgelines; and setting construction back from the streams.

The Smiths, whose grandparents bought the land in 1964, hope to build a whole neighborhood that fits into the area instead of selling off the ranch in pieces.

“Most of it won’t be transformed; we do have an (emotional) connection to the land,” Greg Smith said, noting his family history there.

The project’s beginnings were based on 452 lots in the original Atascadero Colony blueprint mapped out by Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis in the early 1900s.

For decades, Atascadero has eyed Eagle Ranch as an area for potential growth.

In 2008, Hyman, one of dozens of neighbors who lives near the project area, remembers meeting the Smiths at an open house.

It would be the first of many developer-neighborhood meetings that would span five years.

“It was a big rollout of about the 452 historical lots, and (they said) it was about (how) we’re going to develop it and what would you like to see,” Hyman said.

Residents ticked off wish lists for public parks and new hiking trails.

“Then the next meeting, it was (almost double the units) and two hotels, etc.,” Hyman recalled, sounding baffled. “And people really fired back.”

Learning experience

One aspect that confused people, Jeff Smith said, was that the 452 colony lots allowed two units per lot, which means the project wasn’t ever intended to be 452 houses.

“I think we realized we made a mistake when we didn’t make that clear,” Greg Smith said. “We learned from that.”

The brothers scaled back to today’s smaller proposal to help meet neighbors’ desire for larger lots, he added.

The Smiths said those early days were a lot about give and take.

“One of the things Greg and I decided to do at the beginning was to be completely transparent. And (our) vision started to change for all types of groups asking for amenities,” Jeff Smith said.

Some of those requests came from the city and county looking to reach affordable- and senior-
housing benchmarks.

The city also pushed to include a commercial component off Highway 101 to help boost tourism, which is now the 200-room hotel.

The public also wanted trails and places for recreation.

“And all are things that can only be paid for by increasing density. So while the vision stayed the same, it did become more dense,” Jeff Smith said.

If you go

The Eagle Ranch project will be reviewed in a special joint meeting by Atascadero’s City Council and Planning Commission at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6907 El Camino Real in Atascadero.

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