Last Monday afternoon, Doug DeBerti angrily left a meeting with some city officials, bought a can of red spray paint and scrawled on the windows of his downtown property: “Building for sale. Thanks city of AG.”
What led DeBerti to this point, he said, was the culmination of a series of conflicting communications from Arroyo Grande officials and a lengthy review triggered by the project’s location in the Village.
DeBerti, a Bakersfield businessman who moved his family to the area two years ago, thought the site would be good for a surf shop he hoped to open with his two sons.
In December, he bought a roughly 5,000-square-foot building on East Branch Street formerly occupied by J.J.’s Market with plans to open DeBerti Surf Shack.
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The past five months of meetings and discussions with various city staff members and members of its advisory committees have been largely confusing and unclear, Deberti said.
He said he’s started six businesses in Kern County and more recently gained approval from San Luis Obispo County to build an 8,000-square-foot barn on his property in a process that took about three months.
He didn’t expect his Arroyo Grande project to take any longer. “I’m just trying to do a little lipstick on the building,” DeBerti said.
Community Development Director Teresa McClish said city staff met with DeBerti on several occasions, provided him with information about the Village area’s strict design guidelines and took his project to two advisory boards for recommendations in February, within two weeks of DeBerti’s application. She conditionally approved his project Feb. 22.
However, DeBerti said he’s received conflicting information from employees and advisory group members.
“I’m not asking anyone from the city to hold my hand, but for a little bit of guidance so I’m not strung along,” he said.
DeBerti said he’s spent about $34,000, not including the cost of the building.
He said he’s completed four landscape plans and has been directed to plant additional trees. He opposes city direction to move the driveway of his property to a slice of property the city owns so that it will improve traffic circulation. DeBerti said the parcel is his. The city eventually wants him to share a parking lot with a neighbor, which he opposes.
The last straw happened Monday at an Architectural Review Committee meeting, where committee members voiced concerns about his landscaping, the size and color of the lettering on his sign, and his proposal to have two community murals painted on the sides of it.
“If this was on Grand Avenue further down, I’d be jumping for joy to see something really creative that you’ve put together,” committee member Tom Goss said. “But the creativity has to be balanced with a historic building and with the character of the Village.”
Goss said Friday that he does not object to the type of business, but a revised façade that was proposed.
For DeBerti, “that was the kicker.” He left the meeting, painted his windows and put the property up for sale. Since then, his real estate broker, Tom Girard of Arroyo Grande-based Pro Real Estate, said he’s received dozens of calls from former and current business owners commiserating with DeBerti’s situation.
One business owner who did not want to be named said the number of different groups that have to sign off on projects makes it “absolutely impossible and cost-prohibitive for people to open.”
Chuck Fellows, an Architectural Review Committee member, acknowledged the approval process may be more difficult in the Village than in other cities. But local residents have repeatedly said they want certain standards upheld in the downtown area.
About 10 years ago, Fellows pushed for a revision of guidelines intended to preserve the historic character of the area after the modernistic Village Centre project went up at the Village’s western gateway.
“I think the citizenry at large considers that the trouble is worth it,” Fellows said.
McClish said a committee has been meeting to update one part of the city’s general plan dealing with economic development. Part of the update will review the city’s process.
“We attempt to be as flexible as we can with applicants coming in, especially for smaller projects, but we need to be very consistent with our requirements,” she said.
DeBerti was still working on his property on Friday.
“If nobody comes in and buys my building, then I’ll continue to try and open my shop,” he said. “But if someone is interested, I’ll sell it today and I’ll go down to Grover Beach.”