Eagle Ranch owners cancel plans for Atascadero housing development

Take a tour of the 3,450-acre Eagle Ranch in Atascadero

Take a short tour of the 3,457-acre Eagle Ranch, owned by the Smith family of Ventura since 1964. The family has proposed developing the Atascadero ranch into a residential community with 494 single-family lots of at least 1 acre, 93 units of mult
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Take a short tour of the 3,457-acre Eagle Ranch, owned by the Smith family of Ventura since 1964. The family has proposed developing the Atascadero ranch into a residential community with 494 single-family lots of at least 1 acre, 93 units of mult

The owners of Eagle Ranch have dropped their decades-long plan to develop the 3,457-acre property near southwest Atascadero.

A proposal to turn the property into a residential community — which would have involved annexing the property into Atascadero — has been on hold since June, due to public objections and financial concerns.

“It was tough to come to that decision,” said David Armstrong, CEO of Smith-Hobson LLC, a land management firm involved in the development. “It was very tough.”


Eagle Ranch’s road to development

Eagle Ranch was part of city founder E.G. Lewis’ original early 1900s blueprints, which called for the land to be divided into 452 lots. The Smith family of Ventura has owned the property since 1964, and they have been planning to turn it into a residential neighborhood since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2016, the Smiths joined with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo to preserve 3,255 acres of ranchland directly south of the property to be developed.

On the northern half of their property, Brothers Jeff and Greg Smith wanted to build a community with 494 single-family lots, 93 units of multifamily housing, hotels, commercial space and 16.9 miles of public trails. More than 2,000 acres would have remained open space. The property would have been developed over the course of 25 years.

But residents living near the property — home to a working ranch but otherwise undeveloped — fought the project, citing concerns about traffic, construction and utility use.

Atascadero officials also had concerns about the annexation. They wanted the new development to remain revenue-neutral, but under a tax-sharing agreement with San Luis Obispo County, the city would get only one-third of the annexed area’s property taxes — the remaining two-thirds would go to the county.

A conservation easement will preserve 3,255 acres of rolling hills, oak woodlands and cascading waterfalls at Eagle Ranch, located west of Highway 101 and south of Atascadero. Here's a drone's-eye view of the property.

The Smiths held a public hearing in April and announced their plans to continue the development process. But in June, they tabled the project.

“We have spent the last year rethinking and searching for solutions, but in the end, the economics of the Eagle Ranch Specific Plan simply don’t work,” the Smiths said Thursday in a statement. “We wanted a project with many amenities and much open space, but the cost of implementing our vision consistent with community expectations and demands created an overwhelming hurdle.

“The resulting homes would have been more expensive than the local market could bear, and we didn’t want to create a place only for the super wealthy. We are terribly disappointed to give up the project, but we cannot disregard the facts.”

Why plans fell through

Armstrong, the land management firm CEO, said the Smiths’ decision had nothing to do with the city’s concerns. He said the development consistent with their values just wouldn’t pencil out, no matter how they looked at it.

“We’ve looked at a lot of plans, and the only one that works is a kind of pillage and burn,” Armstrong said.

Phil Dunsmore, the city’s community development director, agreed with Armstrong. He said the Smiths likely would’ve spent more money building the project than they would have gotten back.

He said the amount of feedback the developers got at the April meeting “was definitely a blow to them, but ... nothing they couldn’t have gotten through.”

When asked if the city is concerned about the loss of potential housing, Dunsmore said the city is currently more focused on creating jobs and developing commercial space.

“In terms of housing supply, it is a hit to the county as a region,” he said. “It’s not a hit to Atascadero as a locale.”

The future of Eagle Ranch

Moving forward, Armstrong said the Smiths are considering “all options.”

Over the years, they’ve spent millions of dollars planning the Eagle Ranch project, he said. The Smiths have sold off a few peripheral lots to help offset costs, and they might consider selling more to the right buyer, Armstrong said.

At this point, it’s unlikely they would consider another residential development, even one through the county, he said. Intensifying farming operations, which would make use of the property’s water supply, is a strong possibility.

“They are sad that this is the outcome,” Armstrong said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseymholden

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