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Morro Bay buys part of Cerrito Peak for public use

A portion of Cerrito Peak, a rocky promontory that provides a scenic view above a residential neighborhood in Morro Bay, will be preserved as open space after the City Council voted to spend $350,000 in emergency funding to buy the land.
A portion of Cerrito Peak, a rocky promontory that provides a scenic view above a residential neighborhood in Morro Bay, will be preserved as open space after the City Council voted to spend $350,000 in emergency funding to buy the land. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

One of Morro Bay’s best views of the bay and sandspit will be preserved for public use after the City Council voted Tuesday to buy an acre of Cerrito Peak, a eucalyptus-covered volcanic promontory overlooking the city’s southern seascape.

The property, also known as Eagle Rock, was the focus of a 2012 lawsuit against the city for its approval of a two-story private residence on the land, which is also a sensitive monarch butterfly habitat and a historic Native American ceremonial site.

The Morro Bay City Council used $350,000 in emergency funds to buy the land. Earlier this month, the property at 1 Jordan Terrace was valued at between $650,000 and $750,0000 by a Morro Bay Realtor working on behalf of the city.

The ultimate goal is to sell the property to a nonprofit organization — preferably a local one — whose mission is preserving open spaces.

The sale comes four years after a citizen group called Save the Park and a Portland-based wildlife conservation group sued the city over its approval of a two-story residence and a granny unit on the hilltop by property owners Janne Reddell and her husband, the late real estate agent Dan Reddell.

Despite outcry from many local residents, the City Council majority cited the Reddells’ property rights when it denied four separate appeals of the city Planning Commission’s approval of the project.

Public access is allowed around the peak, and the Reddells had pledged to continue to allow recreational access to the peak itself, which fell on their property. But opponents of the project cited a number of issues, including the lack of additional environmental studies, written concerns from the California Coastal Commission and the potential for rockslides.

The hilltop, which is listed in the Native American Heritage Commission Sacred Lands Inventory, is believed to contain archaeological remains of spiritual significance.

In August 2015, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford sided with Save the Park and ordered the city to suspend the project, though the Reddells were allowed to keep their project’s use and coastal development permits, which are set to expire in September.

According to a city staff report, Janne Reddell later approached the city about whether it was interested in purchasing the property. Due to the public demand, the council at the time directed city staff to negotiate the sale.

Of the $350,000 the city will pay, it will be reimbursed $85,000 at the close of escrow for legal fees spent fighting the Save the Park lawsuit, according to the purchase agreement.

No timeline was provided in the report for the property’s future sale, but the Planning Commission will review its consistency with the General Plan, the city’s master plan for growth, according to the staff report.

Former Councilwoman Betty Winholtz, who led Save the Parks in the lawsuit against the city, said Wednesday that she questions the city’s assessed value of the property and its use of emergency funds, but she still called it “a good price” for what residents are getting in return.

“Whether or not the city needed to use the (emergency) funds, they’ve done it. A lot of people think that it’s wrong,” Winholtz said. “But the city says they’ll be paid the money back if they can sell to a conservancy. I question whether (those organizations) will say it’s too small.”

Community Development Director Scot Graham said even after the purchase, the city will have more money set aside in reserves than the city requires, which is 27.5 percent of the total annual General Fund operating budget.

Winholtz said she would like to see the city commit to maintain the property itself. That way, she said, community access won’t be at the whim of a possibly different-minded council majority within the four to five years she expects it will take to find a potential buyer.

Escrow is expected to close on the property by June 8.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify Judge Jac Crawford’s 2015 ruling.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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