The sun beat down on the brightly colored flowers and drought-tolerant perennials flourishing on a recent day at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden, where visitors can eye plants that grow in the world’s five major Mediterranean climate zones.
On some days, the area tucked inside El Chorro Regional Park on Highway 1 bustles with activity, as children explore and sample edible plants or volunteers weed and prune the gardens. The tours, talks and other events held at the Botanical Garden are considered passive activities — but members of the nonprofit organization Friends of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden hope to change that.
“The traditional passive activity of strolling through a garden is old school,” said Debbie Hoover, operations director at the Botanical Garden. “Botanical gardens are adding zip lines, challenge courses, concerts and interactive physics gardens for children.”
About 5 acres of the garden are planted. The nonprofit group is looking into installing zip lines to provide a steady source of income to create a 150-acre garden with an outdoor amphitheater, paved trails, a visitors center, an education and research center, and other amenities.
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Five separate landscapes would showcase plants from the Mediterranean basin, central Chile, the Western Cape province of South Africa, parts of western and southern Australia, and Central and Southern California.
We have a beautiful environment and climate. Why not get people out, walking around learning about it and exploring through adventure tourism and Eco-tourism.
SLO Botanical Garden Education Director Lindsey Collinsworth
San Luis Obispo County, which acquired the federal surplus land for El Chorro Park in 1972, entered into a 99-year lease with the nonprofit organization in 2006 to develop the botanical garden and provide recycled water for irrigation at no cost. (A use permit was approved between the county and the garden in 1994.)
Friends of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden now want to form a separate California benefit corporation to develop and maintain a zip line, which would provide ongoing revenue to the nonprofit group.
“It is a simple, clean process for the garden to become financially solvent and independently develop a beautiful master plan,” board President Madeline Moore said.
The organization has asked the county Board of Supervisors to approve a sublease with a for-profit entity, called Latitude 35. The supervisors will discuss the request Tuesday as part of a larger item on El Chorro Regional Park, including the future of Dairy Creek Golf Course, which has suffered from a lack of water to irrigate the course.
But in a report to the board, county Parks & Recreation Director Nick Franco said deed restrictions on the land would prevent the county from subleasing the property. It could be done, however, if the county received approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior to do so and to allow a zip line.
The board also would need to approve a revised Botanical Garden master plan and use of county leased property for commercial purposes. Then a sublease could be issued if it’s approved by four of the five supervisors.
Moore said the master plan has been amended to include active recreation. The board approved an addendum to the master plan Aug. 25, 2015, Hoover said.
The addendum states that an aerial view of the gardens would provide active recreation and a unique view of the landscape. It estimated the cost of the zip lines at $1.2 million in 2015.
Franco said the county could pursue operation of a zip line through a concession similar to the agreement the county has with Vista Lago Adventure Park at Lopez Lake. That concessionaire pays 7 percent of its gross revenue to the county as rent.
“If you put a commercial operation on public land I think the public expects that you’re going to get some monetary value back from that,” Franco said.
The proposed sublease agreement from Friends of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden would require Latitude 35 to pay the nonprofit group a portion of gross revenue, starting at 2 percent the first year and increasing to 5 percent the fifth year. Moore said the organization would be happy to negotiate a percentage of revenue to county coffers as well.
“We’re looking forward to working in a cooperative mode,” Moore said. “It is just curious as to why this is any kind of a problem, or anything but a benefit for the botanical gardens.”
Franco suggests in his staff report creating a master plan for the entire El Chorro Regional Park, seeking comments from community members on what they want at the park, including a zip line.
Then, a request for a proposal could be put out to choose an operator. Franco said at least two entities are interested, including the company the botanical garden wants to work with, Empower Adventures of Middleburg, Virginia.
Meanwhile, Friends of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden envision a time when visitors are able to get a bird’s-eye view of diverse Mediterranean plants as they breeze by on zip lines soaring over the gardens. Platforms would allow visitors to learn more or step down and walk through the gardens, according to the addendum to the master plan.
“We have a beautiful environment and climate,” Education Director Lindsey Collinsworth said. “Why not get people out, walking around learning about it and exploring through adventure tourism and ecotourism?”
Visit sanluisobispo.com to see a video of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden staff talking about plans for a zip line.