In its first high-profile land-use clash since the June election, the county Board of Supervisors is trying to pass a tougher “ag cluster” ordinance before Debbie Arnold succeeds Jim Patterson in January — a switch in personnel that could change the outcome of the proposed law.
Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business said he would “absolutely” prefer to have Arnold voting on the revised ordinance than Patterson, because she would be “more favorable” to COLAB’s point of view.
“Mrs. Arnold is a farmer and knows something about this,” Brown said.
COLAB is urging opponents of the ordinance to go to a hearing Tuesday and bring five friends.
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“It sounds like they’re trying to filibuster,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. “That’s not going to work.”
Patterson said there are three board meetings before year’s end, and he believes the supervisors can complete work on the changes.
“It’s not that complicated,” Patterson said. “We’re not doing away with the ordinance; we’re just trying to plug a few holes. All we’re doing is making a few changes.”
The revised ag cluster ordinance covers many complex planning issues, but in layman’s terms, the phrase itself refers to the practice of concentrating, or “clustering,” houses in a new development so that the land around the homes can be kept permanently agricultural.
Such an arrangement preserves farming but also allows the farmer or rancher to derive profit from his or her land. Restricting development in rural areas, proponents say, saves taxpayers money in the costs of fire, police and other services.
The county has an ag cluster ordinance, but county leaders say it contains loopholes that allow developers to circumvent its intent.
The Santa Margarita Ranch, for example, was covered by the existing ag cluster ordinance, but the houses were scattered rather than concentrated, Patterson said.
For four years, the county has been seeking to strengthen the ordinance through a series of public meetings and hearings, culminating with Planning Commission approval Aug. 30 on a 3-2 vote.
The changes address the following issues:
• How far from urban areas the ordinance would take effect; it would reduce it from five miles to two miles.
• The location of the parcels on which houses can be built; they will have to be contiguous.
• A component called the “density bonus,” which allows a developer to build more houses if he clusters them more tightly. The new ordinance would eliminate the density bonus.
Opponents say the ordinance already protects agriculture.
“Why don’t they just leave it alone?” Brown asked.
COLAB and others also have more objections, including what Brown described as a failure of planners to measure the cumulative effects of changes that would be brought about by the ag cluster ordinance in conjunction with other land-use decisions, such as the recent attempt to regulate water use in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
The Board of Supervisors held a hearing on the ag cluster proposal Nov. 13, but there was so much public testimony that the board had to continue the discussion until Dec. 4.
COLAB has sent out an action alert urging residents to go and testify at the Dec. 4 hearing. Some proponents of the change suspect a delaying tactic — having so many people testify that the current board cannot make a decision until early next year.
“Otherwise, why would you ask so many people to come out?” asked Sue Harvey of North County Watch, which support the changes in the ordinance.
She is not alone in believing that COLAB is trying to run out the clock on Patterson, whom Arnold defeated in the June 5 primary election.
For the past four years, the Board of Supervisors has had an environmentalist majority — Patterson, Gibson and Adam Hill — that has held sway on land-use issues. Their opponents, including COLAB, Brown and Arnold, have seen them as overly wedded to regulating land use.
When Arnold comes on the board, local political observers expect she will join Supervisors Frank Mecham and Paul Teixeira as a majority that will fight regulations and loosen restrictions on growth.
Brown denied that he is trying to stall a decision on the ag cluster ordinance. He said the county did not notify everyone who should have been notified.
However, county planning said it followed the law in sending out notices. The ordinance affects everyone, and it “would be very time-consuming and expensive to send out individual notices to everyone in the county,” according to Kami Griffin, assistant director of the Planning and Building Department.
Griffin said the county instead took out display ads in a local newspaper for the ordinance amendment change and also has an “interested parties list” of people who have asked to be told of such changes.
Fights over growth, regulation and land use are nothing new in this county, where environmentalists and property rights groups often cross swords. Battlegrounds in recent years have included an ordinance that regulated views of ridge tops; Ernie Dalidio’s project adjacent to Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo; and the Santa Margarita Ranch.