When San Luis Obispo County adopted its agricultural clustering ordinance in 1984, it created the most powerful open-space preservation tool in its arsenal. Promoting environmentally sensitive planning through incentives rather than brute regulation has proven its worth via the permanent preservation of more than 10,000 acres as open space.
The concept is simple: Allow landowners a bonus to cluster homesites on a limited portion of their property in return for permanent preservation of over 90 to 95 percent of the site as open space. The total number of parcels allowed cannot exceed the number of homesites that would otherwise be allowed on conventional agricultural and rural land parcels.
Over the years, the county has approved a handful of such projects, including Varian Ranch, Edna Ranch and Las Ventanas in the Edna Valley. All have preserved 95 percent of their agricultural lands as permanent open space and all are more productive agriculturally than they were before clustering. Served by private roads, they demand little in county services while providing some of the highest tax revenues per household in the county. Most importantly, they have demonstrated how people and agriculture can not only coexist, but also thrive together.
Now, along comes The Reserve at Laetitia, the latest agricultural clustering proposal in northeast Nipomo that promises to offer even more public benefits than its predecessors. Yet despite those benefits, the regulators in county planning are threatening to undo them.
The Laetitia project proposes 101 new homesites tucked into the rolling terrain of the Laetitia Vineyard and Winery property, while preserving 1,414 acres of vineyards and grazing land as permanent open space. Among its features:
A water supply sufficient to serve all project uses without impacting neighboring wells, as confirmed by the county’s own independent analysis.
A state-of-the-art water conservation program, including increased groundwater recharge, pond evaporation controls and a wastewater treatment plant to reuse treated wastewater for irrigation to offset project water demand, thereby ensuring the project won’t require more water than is used on the property today.
No net loss of vineyard acreage.
Improvements to local roads that would operate at the highest level of service after build-out.
Use of the Highway 101 access for emergency access only, because of Caltrans’ concerns.
Financial contributions for a new fire station in Nipomo and improvements at the Los Berros Road interchange.
Laetitia’s benefit of creating a permanent greenbelt that would separate northeast Nipomo from Arroyo Grande would be profound, as would its economic benefits from project start-up to 2028, including:
Creation of 521 jobs in construction, operations, maintenance and tourism.
Countywide impact of $101.9 million in wages, business incomes, wine crop values, tourism expenditures and income from wine- and tourismrelated industries.
A $4.45 million increase in annual property tax revenues at build-out, including $2.1 million to financially challenged Lucia Mar Unified School District.
$5.6 million in county development impact fees.
$1.62 million in school impact fees to Lucia Mar.
In so many ways, Laetitia is indeed a “good news” project. So why is county staff fighting it?
County planners, who have long preferred regulation over incentives, have been obsessed with undoing agricultural clustering since being rebuffed by the Board of Supervisors when they rejected staff’s attempt to kill it back in 2012. In the case of Laetitia, county staff claims that there are 15 Class I environmental impacts. What they fail to state is that the applicant submitted a mitigated plan that addresses those impacts while eliminating all but one of them: air quality.
If staff prevails and the project is rejected in upcoming hearings, here’s what could happen:
The proposed greenbelt separating northeast Nipomo and Arroyo Grande will vanish.
The significant economic benefits would also vanish.
The smattering of 21 existing parcels would likely develop with two homesites each for a total of 42 homes.
Each parcel could drill wells and use water without the controls proposed by Laetitia.
Traffic would have unlimited use of the Highway 101 access, compounding Caltrans’ concerns with that access.
Area road improvements that are sorely needed today won’t happen.
Agricultural clustering, the most powerful land preservation tool the county has had over the past 30 years, will be effectively lost.
With these consequences of denial, the potential environmental impacts of rejecting Laetitia far exceed the environmental impacts associated with approving it. That the county staff can’t or won’t see this, is the ultimate irony. Hopefully, the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors will see through it and do what is right.