Keep a close eye on Wild Cherry Canyon

Conservation deal may be sunk, but even if land is developed it is subject to restrictions

letters@thetribunenews.comApril 17, 2013 

The higher elevations of the Wild Cherry Canyon property offer ocean views from Montaña de Oro to Point Sal on a clear day.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Considering how long the Wild Cherry Canyon conservation project has been languishing, it’s no surprise that the leaseholders ran out of patience and are no longer willing to sell their interest in this magnificent stretch of coastal property.

They had already agreed to 13 extensions of the deal, which ultimately would have added 2,400 acres of undeveloped land near Avila Beach to the State Parks system.

Denis Sullivan, one of the leaseholders, told Tribune reporter David Sneed that, at $21 million, the land is now “ridiculously underpriced.” Yet price may not be the only consideration; according to County Supervisor Adam Hill, the leaseholders are now interested in developing housing on the property.

“They came back and said they wanted to pursue a development scenario,” said the supervisor, who recently met with the leaseholder group to try to salvage the conservation agreement.

Development wouldn’t necessarily preclude conservation; the county could require the bulk of the property to be kept in open space as a condition of approval. But the development scenario is extremely iffy.

Kara Blakeslee — who devoted years to the conservation effort —points out the many hurdles that must be overcome: “Right now, the leaseholders have very limited development rights, due to the zoning, parcel configuration, proximity to Diablo (Canyon) nuclear power plant, the natural and cultural resources, the lay of the land and the fact that PG&E owns the underlying fee title,” she wrote on Facebook.

Perhaps a compromise could be reached that would permit limited development while conserving, say, 90 percent of the parcel and allowing hiking, camping and other recreational opportunities.

But it’s still a bitter disappointment to see the 100 percent conservation agreement collapse when it was so close.

We aren’t even going to try to apportion blame for the sad outcome; there were so many delays and complications that we could spend all day rehashing and pointing fingers. We will say, though, that if the Schwarzenegger and Brown administrations had the good sense to recognize the value of the project, both to the Central Coast and to all of California, they would have made it a priority and it would be adone deal by now.

Instead, the project was stalled for one bureaucratic reason or another, until time ran out.

To those who worked so hard to make preservation of Wild Cherry Canyon happen, know that your efforts — including the countless hours of behind-the-scenes planning and negotiating — are recognized and appreciated.

We’re even more impressed that you aren’t giving up.

Blakeslee is urging project proponents to “continue to watch this property very closely, and make sure that any decisions made are consistent with the law, the county’s land use planning principles, and the needs of the community.”

We have a rare opportunity in Wild Cherry Canyon to preserve an undeveloped stretch of California coastline; we urge everyone interested in the future of this special place to follow Blakeslee’s advice.

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