Eagle Ranch development in Atascadero moves ahead as neighbors push back

Plans to develop the sprawling Eagle Ranch property on Atascadero’s southwestern border are moving ahead, even as some area residents protest the project’s 25-year construction schedule and the traffic and noise that thousands of new residents could introduce to their neighborhoods.

The 3,457-acre ranch, owned by the Smith family of Ventura since 1964, was included in Atascadero founder E.G. Lewis’ original early 1900s plans for the city as 452 lots on a network of streets.

The Smith family has proposed developing the ranch into a residential community with 494 single-family lots of at least 1 acre, 93 units of multifamily housing, 2,285 acres of open space and 16.9 miles of public trails to be maintained by future homeowners’ associations. Hotels and a village center with limited commercial space would also be part of the community.

The land would be developed in 10 phases over 25 years, likely starting in 2020. Future residents would purchase the lots and build their own homes according to guidelines laid out in the ranch’s specific plan. Developers could also buy chunks of the project and build homes.

Atascadero has been making plans to annex Eagle Ranch since the early 2000s. Residents would have access to some city services — such as water — but certain amenities, such as road maintenance, may be privately funded, according to the Smiths and Victor Montgomery of RRM Design Group. As a condition of annexing Eagle Ranch, the city wants the arrangement to remain cost-neutral to Atascadero.

Eagle Ranch today

The ranch spreads across several thousand acres of what are now almost technicolor-green hills covered with stately oak trees. Deer, turkeys, hawks and other wildlife share the land with the Smith family’s 250 head of cattle and small herd of sheep. Deeply rutted dirt roads connect the property’s few structures, including the ranch manager’s home and a few remaining 19th-century barns and outbuildings.

The Smiths in 2016 entered into an agreement with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County to preserve 3,255 acres of ranchland directly south of the property to be developed.

Eagle Ranch is one of three ranch properties the Smiths own throughout California. (They also have land in Ventura and Monterey counties.) Brothers Jeff and Greg Smith are the most involved in the family’s Atascadero property.

Jeff Smith said their idea is to carry out E.G. Lewis’ vision, but “in a more 21st-century way” as a planned community with clustered lots that leave about 70 percent of the ranch as open space threaded with public trails.

When asked whether the family had ever considered keeping the ranch as is, Smith said the cattle business’ lack of profitability and financial considerations had prompted them to develop the land.

“At some point, we really felt we had to do something for our family and for the next generation,” he said.

Residents’ concerns

On Thursday night, city officials hosted a joint Planning Commission and City Council meeting to receive public comments on plans for the ranch.

The meeting was one of the first city-run gatherings since 2013, when council members gave developers the go-ahead to draft an environmental impact report, which is available for public comment until April 17.

But some Atascadero residents who live nearby said Thursday they don’t relish the idea of going through 25 years of continuous construction. Of the dozens who spoke for about an hour and a half at the meeting, many also expressed concerns about increased traffic and issues that could accompany locating trails near their neighborhoods.

Dan Ecklund said he lives off Old Morro Road, near the northwest edge of Eagle Ranch. He and others said they’re worried about a proposed 2.7-mile trail easement near that corner of the ranch that will link to Los Padres National Forest.

Ecklund said he doesn’t think there’s enough of a buffer between the trail staging area and the surrounding neighborhoods. He said he’s worried about more traffic and “vagrants” parking overnight near his home.

“The road is in miserable condition,” he said. “It is not maintained.”

Fred Collins, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council tribal administrator, said his ancestors previously lived on Eagle Ranch. He said he’d initially toured the land and had been looped in on the development, but he said he hadn’t been a part of the project since 2013.

Paul Hyman, who lives northeast of the ranch on Colorado Road, said the development would create a “new mini-city” and told residents they shouldn’t be “hoodwinked by the promise of hiking and riding trails.”

“Would you like the loss of your peace and quiet for the next 30 years?” he asked.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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