A South County family fights to preserve its way of life

clambert@thetribunenews.comJune 1, 2013 

The view from Blair and Mark Mankins’ ranch outside Pismo Beach presents a stunning tableau — deep-green oak trees dot the tan hills of their roughly 350-acre property, while the Pacific Ocean glimmers in the distance.

The rolling hills and valleys have been in the brothers’ family for nearly a century, since their great-uncle, Leo Brisco, bought the property in the late 1920s.

Mark, 49, and Blair, 46, and their families live and work the ranch now, grazing cattle, raising and selling calves and tending 7 acres of avocados.

The brothers say their way of life isn’t easy, but it suits them, and they and their children would like it to remain that way.

Over the past few years, however, they’ve grown increasingly concerned about two large developments proposed on either side of their ranch. Known as Spanish Springs and Los Robles del Mar, the developments collectively could add more than 700 single- and multi-family homes and 150 hotel rooms.

They’re also worried about long-term city plans for a two-lane road that would cut across their property.

The road — known to local residents and city planners as the inland arterial — hasn’t been engineered or approved. It’s simply a dotted line on a map in Pismo Beach’s circulation element, which is one part of its general plan.

But city documents call it a long-term goal and an important regional road needed to help relieve traffic congestion on Highway 101. Other regional agencies, including the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, also say it’s needed and anticipate in planning documents that it will eventually be built.

If built, the inland road would stretch several miles from Oak Park Boulevard to Price Canyon Road, giving current and future residents a route to San Luis Obispo without having to drive on the freeway. 

Without it — or without an alternative scenario — regional transportation planners foresee more congestion on Highway 101 through Pismo Beach. It’s one reason critics of the proposed Spanish Springs development are urging the City Council to deny the project.

Family’s opposition

For several years, Howard Mankins, a former county supervisor and Arroyo Grande mayor, and his sons have made their views known. Mankins, 86, died May 19, a few days after he accompanied his sons on a tour of their ranch with a Tribune reporter and photographer.

“My sons and I want to make it explicitly clear that under no circumstances will we sell our land or grant an easement for the purpose of an ‘inland arterial’ road,” he wrote in a June 2011 letter to the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) also signed by his sons. “My mortality will not change this.”

Pismo Beach officials say they respect the Mankinses’ wishes, and have no plans to build the road unless the family wants to develop its land.

But city staff retire, and new council members are elected. Blair and Mark Mankins wonder what happens if the proposed projects around their property are built and a new council decides the road is necessary. What protection do they have?

And it’s not just one road — planning documents show Highland and Ventana drives and Ridge Road extending into their property to connect with the inland arterial.

“Our fear is we’re the last man standing, and we’ll have neighbors with pitchforks pushing them (Pismo Beach officials) to allow a road to go through,” Blair Mankins said.

At a March meeting, Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham asked city staff what would happen if the portion of the inland arterial stretching across the Mankins land were removed from the city’s long-term plan. City staff is preparing a response for the council’s June 18 meeting.

In an interview, community development director Jon Biggs said he’ll give the council “a quick glimpse” of traffic impacts on other roads if the full inland road isn’t built by 2035.

To remove a portion of the road from general plan documents, the city would have to go through an environmental review process and public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council.

Caltrans remains in support of a parallel route to Highway 101 “in order to keep local traffic on local roads,” spokesman Jim Shivers said. That route could be the inland arterial, a frontage road or an extension of Price Street from downtown to the outlets.

In 2005, the Pismo Beach City Council rejected an $18 million plan to turn Price Street into a frontage road and connect it to Five Cities Drive. It was to be a joint project involving the city, Caltrans and SLOCOG, and the city would have paid only a small fraction of the cost — about $735,000.

In denying the project, the council cited noise, safety and traffic concerns because the construction and road would have been close to a mobile home park.

Road planned for years

The inland arterial was added to the city’s general plan in 1992, the last time the circulation element was updated. The council will start updating it this year or early next year.

According to the circulation element, the road should be designed “to emphasize a pleasant rural driving experience.”

There’s no requirement that the road be completed by any particular date; back in the 1990s, it was thought that the city might expand in an easterly direction, Biggs said.

A 2005 amendment to one portion of the city’s general plan says a connection “shall be extended to connect to Price Canyon Road” before the city could approve development in that area.

But Biggs said that requirement puts Pismo Beach in a “chicken and egg dilemma” because, he believes, the city couldn’t build a road without annexing the land, and LAFCO, the local agency that considers annexations, is not likely to approve an annexation without an approved plan showing what development will occur in the area.

LAFCO Executive Director David Church said he isn’t so sure — perhaps with a property owner willing to grant an easement, a road could be built before annexation took place.

Pismo attorney David Fleishman said he’s never heard of such a scenario happening before and believes doing so could be problematic.

The City Council on June 18 will consider a general plan amendment that states the road should be built in segments over time, eventually extending from Oak Park Boulevard to Price Canyon Road. It does not require that the road be built before any development can occur.

“Without the inland arterial, there will be continued (traffic) increases on Highway 101,” Biggs said. “At some point, if the opportunity presents itself, then the inland arterial can be completed.”
When asked whether it was realistic to assume the road will ever be built, Biggs said: “It’s realistic to plan for it. Whether or not it will be built will depend upon the desires of property owners in the future.”

A legal expert on eminent domain told The Tribune that state law doesn’t allow a city to acquire property by condemnation outside its territory for a road.

Traffic impact debated

The Mankinses’ ranch is sandwiched in the middle of two proposed developments, both outside city limits. They would have to be annexed into the city before being developed.

To the south lies a 154-acre property that a local developer has been trying to build on for more than 25 years. Plans to construct Los Robles del Mar, including 252 homes and 60 senior-citizen residences, were derailed in March 2012, when LAFCO rejected Pismo Beach’s request to annex the property.

To the north is Spanish Springs, a proposal that would add 416 single-family homes, 73 apartments or condos, 120 senior units, a 150-room hotel and 10,000- square-foot conference center, a nine-hole golf course, vineyards and parks on 961 acres in Price Canyon. The plan will return to the council for consideration June 18.

Neither development is required to build the full inland road — only its specific portion of the route, Biggs said.

A traffic analysis for Spanish Springs analyzed the impacts of the project with and without the road’s full completion. If completed, there would be 600 to 1,200 fewer average daily trips on segments of Highway 101 south of the Price Street interchange, according to the specific plan environmental impact report.

The traffic analysis shows that “Spanish Springs does not require the connection to Oak Park Boulevard,” according to Carol Florence of Oasis Associates Inc., a project representative.

By 2035, traffic conditions on a portion of Highway 101 in Pismo Beach are projected to have severe congestion with or without the project, according to Florence and the project’s traffic analysis. The levels of service on most other roadways are projected to remain at acceptable levels of service, even with the project.

Biggs agreed that Spanish Springs does not depend on the full inland road, and said there would be some relief to Highway 101 with only a portion of the road built across the Spanish Springs development.

For example, the traffic analysis shows there would be 300 daily trips from the existing James Way neighborhood on the partially built inland arterial road through Spanish Springs to Price Canyon Road and then to San Luis Obispo, instead of taking Highway 101.

But key regional transportation and land planning agencies don’t believe there will be much relief to Highway 101 without the full inland road.

The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments noted in comments on Spanish Springs’ environmental impact report that the project does not complete the inland road and shouldn’t suggest that “there will be even marginal relief to 101” by rerouting 300 daily trips out of 71,000 from one segment of the highway.

“An arterial that only goes halfway or doesn’t connect to Oak Park Boulevard doesn’t serve the traveling public as well as an arterial that connects the roads and provides alternate routes for 101 travelers,” James Worthley, a SLOCOG senior planner, added in an interview.

The agency has included the inland road in its regional transportation plan “in order to relieve the most congested portion of Highway 101,” Worthley said.

“Adding new growth, whether it’s 100 homes or 500 homes, will further exacerbate the situation on our main freeway,” he added.

SLOCOG is in the process of updating its 20-year transportation plan, and may study the need for the connection regardless of whether it is in Pismo’s general plan, he said.

LAFCO, which considers annexation requests, added in its comments: “Without the full inland arterial, the specific plan falls short of identifying relief opportunities along U.S. 101. Having a segment of the inland arterial within the Spanish Springs portion only … would not relieve traffic or meet the goals outlined in the city’s general plan.”

In response in the environmental documents, Pismo Beach officials say any road improvements that divert some traffic off the highway will be beneficial, “though the full effect of relief to U.S. 101 from an inland arterial will be greater if and when the inland arterial connects all the way from Price Canyon Road to Oak Park Boulevard.”

But some residents don’t believe the city is being upfront about the reality of the full inland road ever being built.

“If that possibility (of it being built) is questionable, in my opinion the city needs to restudy all the major intersections in Pismo to really (know) what is going to be occurring in the next 20 years and how they’re going to plan around it,” Pismo Beach resident Marcia Guthrie said. “Tell people what they’re in for.”

Uncertain future

So where does that leave their family, Blair Mankins and his brother wonder? In a letter to the city in February, they asked the city to consider removing from planning documents the portion of the inland arterial road crossing their property.

They remain concerned that someday, the city might try to obtain the property through eminent domain, though city officials say that idea has never been raised.

The Mankinses’ property outside Pismo Beach has been in a Williamson Act contract since 1991, which allows farmers and ranchers substantial property tax breaks if they sign 10- or 20-year nondevelopment contracts. The Mankinses’ property is in a 10-year contract that automatically renews, according to senior county planner Terry Wahler.

Land in a Williamson Act contract can be acquired by eminent domain by a public agency for a public improvement. 

However, state law only allows a public agency to acquire a property outside its territory for certain circumstances, and a road is not one of them, said Todd A. Amspoker, a partner at Santa Barbara-based law firm Price, Postel & Parma. His practice involves public agency and real estate matters, including eminent domain and real estate litigation.

He did not know whether a county could acquire property on behalf of a city so it could build a public facility such as a road. 

In the meantime, the Mankins family will continue its agricultural operations — and plans to attend the Pismo council’s June 18 meeting, where documents to guide development of Spanish Springs will be considered.

“It will be interesting to see how far they’re willing to go to address our concerns,” Blair Mankins said. “My main concern is getting us out of the general plan. It’s not in our long-range plans to develop.”

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