I’m not a big pro-growth kind of guy and would generally favor wrapping our cities in pretty greenbelts.
But I’m also not a complete wanton idealist, and I recognize the value of well-planned developments that enable owners to take advantage of their properties in ways that benefit both them and the overall community.
Without the benefit of a diploma in city and regional planning, I would say developers achieved that rather nicely with the Reserve at Laetitia, proposed between Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.
More than a decade in the making, the project is an example of ag clustering, which involves building groups of homes in tight groups on agricultural or rural land — in this case, amid the grapevines of a South County winery.
But it has struggled to gain support and is facing a laundry list of what county planners believe are problematic environmental issues, in addition to a wealth of opposition from neighbors.
Among the unavoidable Class 1 impacts, planners say, are everything from how visible the project is from nearby roads to how many oak trees might be lost to the potential for the new homeowners to be exposed to the noise of Laetitia Winery’s vineyard operations. Neighbors also fear the development will threaten their water source, but extensive study indicates that isn’t the case.
If you ask me, the project looks like an attractive option to randomly carving up the property without a larger plan. This proposal also would limit the homes to a fraction of the overall acreage while leaving a majority preserved from future development.
To be honest, some of the potential conflicts noted by the county report simply don’t make sense.
For example, the report says the development would remove or impact 169 coast live oak trees.
But project manager Victor Montgomery counts the number lost at only seven. Why such a disconnect?It would seem not so difficult to count just how many trees would be toppled in place of homes and be able to agree on that number.
Also, planners are worried about a potential loss of productivity to the existing vineyards. This is because 113 acres of grapes would have to be moved to a different part of the property.
Who cares? Why is that our concern?
If a vineyard owner wants to rip out grapes, why is the planning department trying to get in the way? Nobody is going to miss 100 acres of vines in a county that is inundated with wine operations already.
Likewise, when the developer says, OK, we’ll move the grapes, the county seems almost petulant in questioning just how well they’ll grow in the new location.
Again, so what if they wither up and die? When did Laetitia hire the planning department as its CFO?
Montgomery thinks a changing standard is at work and that the county is not applying the same framework for this project as it did for a Santa Margarita Ranch ag cluster in 2008.
That project includes 111 homes on 1- to 1.5-acre parcels clustered within a property that totals 3,778 acres, basically double the size of Laetitia’s property.
The Laetitia plan calls for 101 1-acre parcels. Montgomery also points to an ag cluster development at Biddle Ranch/Talley Vineyards, which he described as “light and tight” with only four Class 1 impacts noted in its staff report in 2004.
“The land-use ordinance says, ‘Do clustering,’ ” Montgomery told The Tribune. “We did clustering, and it’s clearly apparent that they don’t like it.”
So what happened? Has the ground shifted under Montgomery’s feet or are county planners merely doing their jobs and pointing out bona fide concerns?
It may be a little of both.
For his part, planner Brian Pedrotti, who prepared the report, says the issues with the Reserve at Laetitia do not reflect a change in the county’s thinking on ag clusters and are only based on issues with the project itself.
He wants to see fewer homes on fewer clusters so the development becomes more compact.
That may be fair, but I’m not sure how much of an impact 27 fewer homes will have on Highway 101 traffic (another of the Class 1 impacts) when the owners will probably be a pair of retirees from Orange County.
The project does seem to meander deep into the property, so it seems it could be condensed.
On its face, the idea of building an ag cluster of homes at this winery is a decent idea. But 11 years have already passed with not much to show for it, and the prospects for the current incarnation look grim.
Here’s hoping the two sides can come together on something that’s mutually agreeable within a reasonable period, before we lose another decade of time and energy.