Hundreds of trees cut down as San Luis Ranch development begins

The construction of the San Luis Ranch mixed-use development project is underway in San Luis Obispo — and hundreds of trees once visible from Madonna Road are coming down.

A total of 564 trees are expected to be cleared as part of the project near Madonna Road and Highway 101, although more than twice as many native trees and willow cuttings will be planted at the site, according to Cate Norton, a representative of Coastal Community Builders. That company belongs to Pismo Beach-based developer Gary Grossman.

A large majority of the trees being cut are non-native eucalyptus, but the property also has palms, willows, pines, coast live oaks and bottlebrush, cottonwood, cypress and pepper trees, Norton said.

The San Luis Ranch project has been approved by the San Luis Obispo City Council for 580 homes, 150,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 square feet of office space and a 200-room hotel. The first homes, including condos, townhomes and apartments, are expected to be completed by late 2019 or early 2020, Norton said.

About 60 acres of the 131-acre site will remain open space, with the rest slated for development.

San Luis Obispo officials wrote on the city’s website that more than 90 percent of the trees being removed are non-native species and include “dead, dying, fallen or required to be removed” trees as part of the City Council’s approval.

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Many eucalyptus and other trees are being cleared at the site where new San Luis Ranch housing development in San Luis Obispo will be going in. Photo by Joe Johnston 01-29-19 Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Next steps for trees and housing

Coastal Community Builders will replant 700 native trees and 700 willow cuttings “within the Cerro San Luis Channel and Prefumo Creek, with the goal of creating native habitats for identified species,” the company said in a news release.

“Nearing completion, tree removal is occurring on Madonna Road to make way for infrastructure improvements including sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian crossings,” the release said.

Besides the incoming housing, the tree removals also will make room for widening along Madonna Road, drainage improvements in the Cerro San Luis Channel and road circulation at Froom Ranch Way.

Five existing great blue heron nests have been relocated and three new ones were constructed using parts of the relocated nests, according to Norton.

“We have biologists monitoring daily any nesting birds that may be on site — and are maintaining appropriate buffers as required for any nesting bird concerns,” Norton said.

About 400 trees will remain in an approximately 7.8 acre open-space parcel with a dedicated tree preserve across a portion of the property, Norton said.

A project arborist and a qualified biologist are on site to monitor all tree removal activities to ensure compliance with the approved plans, San Luis Obispo officials said.

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Many eucalyptus and other trees are being cleared at the site where new San Luis Ranch housing development in San Luis Obispo will be going in. Photo by Joe Johnston 01-29-19 Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Community members react

Community members who opposed the San Luis Obispo project lamented the loss of trees, where birds nested and a green space buffer separated the neighborhood west of Oceanaire Drive and Highway 101.

Mila Vujovich-La Barre, a longtime critic of planned development of the site, wrote on Facebook on Jan. 8 that she was “in mourning” of the “tree massacre at San Luis Ranch.”

“It is difficult to consider this as ‘progress,’” Vujovich-La Barre wrote. “Goodbye to the magical vista. Hello ‘affordable housing’ ... I fought for years to preserve this 131 acres of class 1 agriculture land as a private citizen ... I will blast Joni Mitchell tomorrow with my box of Kleenex ... ’They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’”

But those in favor of the development applauded the move to add more places to live in a city that has faced a tight real-estate market with high rent and home purchase prices.

As of Tuesday, 2,030 people have expressed interest in living at San Luis Ranch, Norton said. Priority will be given to the local workforce.

Proposals for developing the site have been the subject of fierce battles.

Former owner Ernie Dalidio took a proposed building project to a countywide Measure J vote in 2006 that would have featured 530,000 square feet of commercial space, 198,000 square feet of office space, a 150-room hotel, 60 residential units and 13 acres of agricultural uses.

The vote in favor of the project was challenged in court, and was ultimately upheld in the Second Court of Appeal in Ventura in 2009.

But Dalidio never followed through with construction and sold the property to Grossman in 2014 for $19.7 million.

“I am quite happy to see that this project is going to get underway soon,” former San Luis Obispo councilman John Ashbaugh wrote on Facebook in December 2018. “Gary Grossman deserves credit for his persistence AND his flexibility ... This approval reversed the pernicious effects of Measure J, passed countywide in 2006, that had approved a much larger development with no control by the city.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.