A large parcel of open space at the south end of San Luis Obispo is one of the last areas still farmed on the city’s edge.
But the bucolic property has long been a battleground in the ongoing struggle over the city’s efforts to balance urban growth while preserving the area’s agricultural heritage.
After long and finally failed negotiations with the city over the land’s future, county voters eventually approved Ernie Dalidio’s right to develop his land.
Now the San Luis Obispo City Council is expected tonight to adopt a plan that would narrowly define the use of agricultural lands near his property. The plan, which would define open space and how it would be used, would apply to his property only if it is annexed into the city.
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The new agricultural master plan for the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Reserve at the southern end of the city includes 25 acres of farmland already deeded to the city by developers in the area bordered by Madonna Road, Highway 101 and Prefumo Creek.
It would also govern an additional 65 acres that the city could potentially acquire should the 131-acre Dalidio property seek annexation.
For nearly two decades, rancher-developer Dalidio has wanted to build a shopping center on the 131 acres of farmland next to Highway 101 on San Luis Obispo’s south side. But the project has had a history of opposition. Some people have been concerned with the loss of agricultural land, while others worried about the impact a large commercial development would have on downtown businesses.
Dalidio won the right to develop the property in 2009 when the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that his Marketplace proposal could move forward.
Dalidio has objected to being included in the new agricultural master plan — saying it conflicts with what was approved by voters.
Dalidio said the city is “overreaching” by including the property in the plan and the city had numerous opportunities to move the project forward but “they managed to somehow let it slip away from them.”
A detailed letter written by Dalidio to the city refutes the plan and criticizes the city for not including him, as a major stakeholder, in the discussion.
The plan would only apply to the Dalidio property should it be annexed, said Neil Havlik, the city’s natural resources manager.
The City Council directed staff to create the master plan for city-owned agricultural lands in 2009 — acknowledging a community request to consider dedicating a portion of the area as an urban community farm.
The master plan would keep the city-owned 25-acre reserve, located at the end of the Calle Joaquin cul-de-sac to the north of Kimball Motors, zoned for agricultural use. Options include private, community-supported agricultural operation, individual garden plots, small leased plots or commercial scale agricultural operations.
The plan, acknowledging that the city has little control of Dalidio’s decision to seek annexation, offers a phased approach.
The first phase would lease 20 acres of the city-owned land to a nonprofit to oversee agricultural production and create educational programs on the land.
The second phase would expand a similar use to the Dalidio land should it be acquired by the city. It would also seek to extend the Bob Jones Bike Trail through the Dalidio property.
The land battle
The Dalidio ranch was the subject of two hard-fought political campaigns. After extensive negotiation, the city had approved plans for annexing and developing the Dalidio Marketplace in 2003 and 2004.
In 2005, registered voter petitions in opposition to the project forced the city to put the question on the ballot, and the public narrowly voted against the development.
Dalidio responded with the countywide Measure J in 2006. It was supported by 65 percent of county voters and called for more development, including retail, a hotel, soccer fields, a business park and housing. The proposal became final in 2009 when the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that his Marketplace could move forward in 2009 and the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
“The truth is I don’t have any interest in negotiating with the city over this because of Measure J,” said Dalidio. “There is an approved master plan for the property that was passed by 65 percent of the people in the county — that is the legal entitlement of the property today.”
Dalidio added that his past attempts to work with the city and the resulting political battle that ensued “dampens your enthusiasms with the city under those circumstances.”