Judge dismisses some environmental concerns for Santa Margarita Ranch project

Ranch owners need to address certain impacts to development proposal

bmorem@thetribunenews.comApril 4, 2013 

After more than three years of legal wrangling over the environmental impacts of developing an agricultural residential cluster on 3,778 acres of the Santa Margarita Ranch, a tentative ruling by Judge Jac A. Crawford is somewhat of a split decision in the ranch owners’ favor.

Although several environmental issues will have to be addressed before building permits can be issued, Crawford dismissed the bulk of other environment-oriented concerns.

North County Watch and the Endangered Habitat League had petitioned the Superior Court to strike down an environmental impact report that was approved in the waning days of 2008 by a lame-duck majority on the Board of Supervisors.

The board’s vote reversed a county Planning Commission decision to deny the project and refusal to certify its EIR. The commission’s decision was based on “24 inconsistencies with (county) applicable plans and ordinances.”

The League of Women Voters, the Upper Salinas — Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, California Oak Foundation, Morro Coast Audubon, Santa Margarita Area Residences Together and ECOSLO all weighed in against the EIR.

The owners of the ranch then appealed to the board, which approved the EIR while noting 11 environmental impacts of the project that couldn’t be mitigated or lessened.

The board found that “… the project’s overall social, economic and policy benefits” overrode “adverse consequences to agricultural lands, air quality, oak woodlands, water, natural resources, noise and transportation.”

As conceived in 2008, an estimated 300 people in 111 homes would live on 1-to 1.5-acre lots in the 3,778-acre agricultural cluster subdivision. That phase is part of a larger development on the 14,000- acre ranch, one that could create wineries, more than 500 homes and a host of other development.

Citing dozens of legal cases involving interpretations of environmental law, Crawford found in his March 28 decision that the county had fallen short in a couple of areas of the EIR:

• A full study of the project’s impacts on seven seasonal vernal pools within the project’s scope that contain threatened and endangered species, such as vernal pool fairy shrimp, tiger salamander and birds and mammals that use the pools as a water source.

• Bringing the project into compliance with county air quality standards and analyzing off-site air mitigation fees through a series of public hearings.

As a tentative ruling, the ranch owners and North County Watch/Endangered Habitat League have until April 12 to file objections.

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